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Motor Control Theories

© Nicholas O'Dwyer, School of Exercise and Sport Science, The University of Sydney

Theory:
a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena
Macquarie Dictionary

Hypothesis:
a proposition (or set of propositions) proposed as an explanation for the occurrence of some specified
group of phenomena, either asserted merely as a provisional conjecture to guide investigation (a working
hypothesis), or accepted as highly probable in the light of established facts
Macquarie Dictionary

Theories versus hypotheses:

A theory is used to organise related facts and observations for the purpose of describing, explaining and
predicting events or behaviours. A theory represents our current state of knowledge about the world.

A hypothesis serves as a tentative explanation (or prediction) of the relationship between two or more sets
of observations.

Why do we need theories?

Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned theoretical physicist, states that a good theory should satisfy 2
requirements:

● it must accurately describe a large class of observations


● it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations

We look to theories to provide us with explanations about why people perform skills as they do, which
means identifying the variables that account for the performance characteristics we observe.

Theories also provide us with a conceptual structure that accounts for a body of empirical findings related
to movement.

- so theories provide us with:

● explanatory variables or mechanisms


● conceptual structure

In this lecture we will look briefly at the two dominant theories or conceptual frameworks that focus on
explaining human motor behaviour:

Information Processing (Cognitive) Approach


encompasses:

● Motor Programs
● Central Pattern Generators (CPGs)

Dynamical Systems Approach

encompasses:

● action systems
● ecological psychology - direct perception

based on the principles of nonequilibrium thermodynamics

These are not highly evolved general theories like relativity theory and quantum mechanics in physics, but
are more conceptual paradigms or approaches to the study of motor control and learning. However,
scientists in the field of motor control tend to operate within one of other of these paradigms and this
determines their research questions and types of experimental study.

These approaches address primarily the behavioural level and largely ignore the neural level (although
this is changing with the increasing availability of brain imaging techniques). Theories that address the
neural level include:

Computational Approach

encompasses:

● Connectionist / Neural Network Models


● Adaptive Model Theory

Equilibrium Point / Mass Spring Theory

We will not consider these here, since our focus is on the behavioural level.
Information Processing

The information processing approach depends on the following postulates and assumptions:

● the human is a processor of information, comparable to a computing machine

● the organism consists of:


receptors, effectors and an intervening control system
- information processing is concerned primarily with the operations of the control system

● information is processed in stages - from stimulus identification, through response planning and
programming to response execution

● the individual is viewed as an active processor of information, rather than a passive recipient

● the human operator is seen as a limited-capacity information channel

● all mental operations take time


- when a stimulus is presented, it takes a certain amount of time before a response is initiated
- hence the ubiquity of the reaction time as a measure of information processing time

This approach has been strongly influenced by experimental psychology and the use of reaction time
experiments is a clear manifestation of this influence. Since experimental psychology has studied human
learning extensively, this also explains why the information processing approach has more to say about
motor learning than does the dynamical systems approach. Learning is explained in terms of the
development of more effective information processing and storage (memory). An example of more
effective information handling is the 'chunking' procedure we use to remember telephone numbers - we
group several numbers together and remember these groups or chunks (see lecture on Memory).

Central to the information processing approach is the concept of a 'motor program'. The idea of a motor
program is that a sequence of commands may be prepared in advance, stored and subsequently run off,
just like a computer program, without any involvement from feedback. Keele (1968) provided this early
definition of a motor program:

... a set of muscle commands that are structured before a movement sequence begins, and
that allows the entire sequence to be carried out uninfluenced by peripheral feedback.
(Keele 1968, p. 387)

It can be seen that the idea of feedforward control is central to the concept. It is also implicit that the set
of central commands prepared in advance is also stored before being used to direct a movement - so
memory is also central to the concept.
Before considering the evidence for motor programs, it is important to recognise two apparently similar
but distinguishably different uses of the term motor programming:

1. Motor programming can refer explicitly to the preparation of a motor program per se, namely,
preparation and storing of a set of motor commands in advance of a movement.
2. Motor programming can refer simply to the process of preparation of movement in advance of
execution, without making specific claims regarding the processes involved nor what is prepared.
This usage is more widespread than the first, particularly among neurophysiologists. It makes
fewer assumptions regarding underlying control processes, but simply acknowledges the existence
of preparatory processes in the control of movement, as borne out by the evidence outlined below.

Evidence for preparation of movement in advance of execution

Many experimental findings point to the fact that movement is prepared in advance of
execution. An example of movement where advance preparation appears most obviously to
occur is any type of shot in golf. Clearly, this notion of advance preparation is of
fundamental importance to understanding how movement is controlled by the nervous
system. We considered the important lines of evidence for advance preparation of
movement in the lecture on Processing_Information:

1. Startle RT
2. RT increases with movement complexity
3. Psychological refractory period
4. Limitations in modifying movements
5. Effect of mechanically blocking a limb
6. Motor equivalence
7. Scaling of movement with distance

Advance preparation and storage in memory is necessary to account for rapid movements,
control of which cannot be accounted for by sensory information or response-produced
feedback because it is too slow (Schmidt 2003).

Two major problems with early accounts of motor programs were:

● Storage or memory

● Novelty

How many programs would an organism need to have at its disposal in order to move? Since a motor
program is said to produce a particular movement sequence or action, then a new program would be
required for a different action, such as an overarm versus an underarm throw. In speech, for example,
there are about 44 different sounds, known as phonemes. Many of these correspond broadly with the
vowels and consonants in the alphabet, but there are additional sounds such as diphthongs (the o in 'boy'
and 'how'), fricatives (the th in 'thin', the sh in 'show') and affricatives (the ch on 'choke'). More
importantly, the actions of the lips, tongue and jaw for a particular sound differ depending on the sounds
both preceding and following it. For example, the movements of the tongue are quite different for the t in
'eat' and 'boat'. Consequently, it has been estimated that about 100,000 programs would be required for
speech alone. It can be seen that, given the multitude of different actions of which we are capable, the
brain would be required to store a very large number of motor programs. This is neither a simple nor
efficient way to operate.

The novelty problem is related to the storage problem. If we studied 50 forehand swings in a game of
tennis, we would find that no two were exactly the same because the ball never has exactly the same
velocity, location on the court or height. Try writing the words 'motor equivalence' several times - you
will find that you cannot reproduce the letters so that they are exactly the same in every detail. We
reproduce many characteristics when we repeat the same action, as the motor equivalence example shows,
but we never exactly repeat a movement and so every movement is novel. The early accounts of motor
programs do not explain this novelty.

In response to these problems, Schmidt (1975) proposed the schema theory of motor learning. This
incorporated two constructs:

the generalised motor program and the schema.

The hypothesis was that generalised motor programs control a class of actions, rather than specific
movements. Schmidt and Lee (1999) provide the analogy with a statistical program to compute means
and standard deviations - the program can be applied to a few numbers or very many numbers and can
produce results for combinations of numbers that it has never been used for before. In this way, the
generalised memorial structure can account for the enormous number of variations of a given action that
we can produce.

Generalised motor programs have two important characteristics, namely, invariant features and
parameters.

Certain features of different movements produced by the same motor program remain invariant:

● relative time
● relative force*
● sequence or order

*Schmidt (2003) has acknowledged that the claim of relative force invariance is almost certainly incorrect.

In order for the program to operate, certain parameters must be assigned:

● overall time
● overall amplitude
● overall force
● limb(s) or muscles used
Figures 1 and 2 illustrate how the invariant feature of relative time is thought to operate.

Figure 1 (from Magill 2004, p. 60):


An illustration of invariant relative time for a hypothetical four-component motor skill when it is
performed normally at a 10-second duration (a), when it is speeded up to a 5-second duration (b) and
when it is slowed down to a 15-second duration. The absolute time for any component varies with the
total time, but remains a constant proportion of the total time.

This invariance of relative time has been shown for walking and running (Figure 2).
Figure 2 (from Magill 2004, p. 63, taken from Shapiro et al 1981):
The relative time percentage of total step-cycle time for each of the four phases of the step-cycle at
different speeds of walking and running.

The fact that the relative times for the four phases of the step-cycle are different for walking and running
implies that these two activities have different generalised motor programs.

Schmidt's schema theory formalised the notion of generalised motor program

schema = set of rules = an abstract representation of rules governing movement

Schema theory holds that there are two states of memory - a recall memory responsible for the production
of a movement and a recognition memory responsible for evaluation of a movement. Each movement
results in the abstraction of various sources of information:

● initial conditions (eg, body positions, weight of thrown objects and so on) before movement
● parameters (assigned to the generalised motor program)
● outcome (knowledge of results)
● sensory consequences (how the movement felt, looked, sounded and so on)
From these sources of information, two types of relationship are abstracted:

● A recall schema is related to movement production and is the relationship between parameters for
the program on each trial and the outcome achieved by the program (eg, distance thrown)
● A recognition schema is related to movement evaluation and is the relationship between the
sensory consequences generated by running the program and the initial conditions and the
outcomes

Rapid actions are produced using recall schemas and can then be evaluated afterward using recognition
schemas. Motor learning is conceptualised as the development of these schemas with practice and
experience. The rules encapsulated by schemas are learned with practice and the strength of the schema is
related to the amount of practice. Hence, the information can be discarded after each movement and what
is stored in memory is the schemas.

Dynamical Systems

The information processing approach assumes the existence of a command centre in the brain that makes
executive decisions regarding movement. Once a decision has been made to act, a plan (program) is
retrieved from memory and commands are sent to the motor system to implement the action. The
dynamical systems approach contends that a plan created by a command centre cannot account for all the
variations and adjustments in skilled movement and that the task for memory would be too great. Instead,
this approach suggests that movements 'emerge' or self-organise from a dynamical interaction of
numerous variables in the body, the environment and the task. These variables impose constantly
changing constraints upon movement and the movement pattern that emerges is function of these
constraints. Bodily constraints include anthropometric characteristics and biomechanics, cognitive and
emotional characteristics. Environmental constraints include gravity, light, temperature and objects and
surfaces with which we must interact. Task constraints include intentions and goals, and machines, tools
or implements that must be used and rules (as in sporting activities).

How do we choose which combination of joint movements for a particular goal-directed act?

This question supposes that the brain sends commands down to individual joints as the means by which to
produce goal-directed movement. What if that is not the case?
Figure 3 (from Kandel et al 2000, p. 346):
The human corticospinal tract descends through the subcortical white matter, the internal capsule, and the
cerebral peduncle. As the fibres descend, they form the medullary pyramids (hence, the entire projection
is sometimes called the pyramidal tract). Most of the corticospinal fibres cross the midline in the medulla
at the pyramidal decussation. About 10% do not cross until they reach the level of the spinal cord at
which they terminate.

Let us consider the traditional view of how the nervous system controls movement. By the end of the
19th century, scientists knew that different parts of the motor cortex were associated with different
movements of the body (the cortical homunculus). It was believed that in order to move, a motor
command was retrieved from memory, the respective parts of the motor cortex were activated and
messages were sent to any/all of the following candidates: joints, muscles, motor units, even alpha-
gamma linkages.

Figure 4 (from Kelso 1982, p. 240):


An executive system, a homunculus, selects from memory a plan for movement (analogous to a musical
score) and implements the plan by manipulation the cortical motor strip (analogous to a keyboard). The
details of the plan might be expressed in terms of: motor units, alpha-gamma links, muscle or joints.

Depending upon the candidate, the number of degrees of freedom in the arm which needed to be
controlled varied - from 7 joints, to 26 muscles, to at least 2600 motor units. That is, if the arm is to be
controlled by the brain individually specifying values to each motor unit, thousands of degrees of freedom
must be continuously regulated for the arm to function. It is now generally considered that this may be an
impracticable task - this is the degrees of freedom problem. This is one of the reasons this model has
fallen into disrepute among many, though by no means all, motor control theorists.

The dynamical systems view is that the elements of a system are constrained to act together in a specific
relationship - this permits reduction in the degrees of freedom which need to be controlled. As we saw in
the lecture on Coordination, the notion of coordinative structures or synergies is proposed to describe
this constraint.

Dynamical Systems approach is derived from the principles if nonlinear thermodynamics. These
principles are also used to describe many different biological and non-biological phenomena, such as
cardiac rhythms, nest building by termites, weather patterns and cloud formation, and the transitions from
ice to water and water to steam. The dynamical systems approach emphasises:

● self-organisation

(instead of motor program; eg, hurricanes)

● coordinative structures

(emergent self-organised synergies)

● perception-action coupling

(eg, optical variable tau - guides steering a car, catching a ball,


approach to long-jump)

● attractors (stable regions of operation)

(preferred modes; eg, in phase, anti-phase)

This approach develops nonlinear equations of motion that specify stability of performance. For any task,
two parameters are usually identified:

order parameters (also known as collective variables)

= abstract variables that define or describe the overall behaviour of system, eg, relative phase

- this is the outcome (dependent) variable that is usually measured in experiments conducted using the
action systems approach.
control parameters

= a variable that influences the stability and character of the order parameter, eg, frequency

- this is the (independent) variable that is usually manipulated in experiments conducted using the action
systems approach.

Information Processing vs Dynamical Systems

The information processing approach uses a machine (eg, computer) analogy which emphasises:

● commands specified by CNS


● memory representation (eg, motor program)

Dynamical systems theory uses a biological analogy (humans as animals adapted to the natural
environment - this is the ecological perspective) which emphasises:

● commands specified by the environment


● dynamic interaction of environmental information with the CNS - learning is seen as a process of
adapting to task-environment constraints
(perception-action coupling)
● coordination (synergies)
(rhythmic movement)
● stable 'low energy' organisation of movement

A gulf separates information processing and action systems approaches - there was considerable initial
conflict between them in the 1980s. This conflict has now subsided and as noted by Newell (2003), the
two camps have "agreed to disagree". The two approaches now operate more or less in parallel, with
some researchers attempting to bridge the gap between them.

However, these two approaches are really about different things (Schmidt 1988).

The gulf is not so much due to competing conceptions for the same phenomena than to concern for
different kinds of phenomena (Keele 1998):

a top-down structural approach to processes within human operator

- mechanisms of control

vs
a bottom-up phenomenological approach to mutual relationship between environmental information and
motor behaviour

- input-output relation

Information and Energy

The information processing approach deals explicitly with the informational constraints on motor control
but does not consider energetic factors.

The dynamical systems approach also considers informational factors (eg, dynamic interaction of
environmental information with the CNS in perception-action coupling), though in a different way to the
information processing approach - eg, it has little to say about memory and provides a different account of
learning. This approach also considers energetic factors - this is implicit in its emphasis on the dynamics
of movement and in its emphasis on 'low energy' organisation of movement. Nevertheless, most studies
conducted within this paradigm do not actually measure energetic variables.

Key points - Learning objectives

We look to theories to provide us with explanations about why people perform skills as they do, which
means identifying the variables that account for the performance characteristics we observe

- so theories provide us with:

● explanatory variables or mechanisms


● conceptual structure

Information Processing (Cognitive) Approach

Depends on the following postulates and assumptions:

● the human is a processor of information, comparable to a computing machine

● the organism consists of:


receptors, effectors and an intervening control system
- information processing is concerned primarily with the operations of the control system

● information is processed in stages - from stimulus identification, through response programming to


response execution

● the individual is viewed as an active processor of information, rather than a passive recipient

● the human operator is seen as a limited-capacity information channel


● all mental operations take time
- when a stimulus is presented, it takes a certain amount of time before a response is initiated
- hence the ubiquity of the reaction time as a measure of information processing time

Information processing approach emphasises motor programs and advance planning of movement.

Motor program:

... a set of muscle commands that are structured before a movement sequence begins, and
that allows the entire sequence to be carried out uninfluenced by peripheral
feedback. (Keele 1968, p. 387)

Generalised motor programs:

Invariant features:

● relative time
● relative force
● sequence or order

Parameters:

Variations in certain parameters must be assigned:

● overall time
● overall amplitude
● overall force
● limb(s) or muscles used

Evidence for preparation of movement in advance of execution:

1. RT increases with movement complexity


2. Psychological refractory period
3. Limitations in modifying movements
4. Startle RT
5. Effect of mechanically blocking a limb
6. Motor equivalence
7. Scaling of movement with distance
Dynamical Systems Approach

emphasises:

● self-organisation (instead of motor program), eg, hurricanes


● coordinative structures (emergent self-organised synergies)
● perception-action coupling, eg, optical variable tau - guides steering a car, catching a
ball, approach to long-jump
● attractors (stable regions of operation), preferred modes, eg, in phase, anti-phase

order parameters (= abstract variables that define or describe the overall behaviour of
system), eg, relative phase

control parameters (= a variable that influences the stability and character of the order
parameter), eg, frequency

Information Processing vs Dynamical Systems

The information processing approach uses a machine (eg, computer) analogy which emphasises
commands specified by CNS and memory representation (eg, motor program), while the dynamical
systems theory uses a biological analogy (humans as animals adapted to the natural environment) which
emphasises commands specified by the environment and dynamic interaction of environmental
information with the CNS (perception-action coupling). They address different motor control questions -
the information processing approach is concerned with identifying structural processes within the human
operator, while the dynamical systems approach is strongly focused on environmental interaction and
coordination.

References

Kandel ER, Schwartz JH, Jessell TM (2000) Principles of Neural Science, 4th edition. New York:
McGraw-Hill.

Keele SW (1968) Movement control in skilled motor performance. Psychological Bulletin, 70: 387-403.

Keele SW (1998) Replies to JJ Summers: has ecological psychology delivered what it promised? In: JP
Piek (ed.) Motor Behavior and Human Skill. A Multidisciplinary Approach. Champaign, IL: Human
Kinetics, pp. 403-405.

Kelso JAS (1982) Human Motor Behavior: An Introduction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
th
Magill RA (2004) Motor Learning and Control. Concepts and Applications, 7 edition. New York:
McGraw-Hill.

Newell KM (2003) Schema theory (1975): retrospectives and prospectives. Research Quarterly for
Exercise and Sport, 74: 383-388.

Schmidt RA (1975) A schema theory of discrete motor skill learning. Psychological Review, 82: 225-
260.

Schmidt RA (1988) Motor and action perspectives on motor behavior. In: OG Meijer, K Roth (eds.),
Complex Movement Behaviour: 'The' Motor-Action Controversy. Amsterdam; Elsevier, pp. 3-44.

Schmidt RA (2003) Motor schema theory after 27 years: reflections and implications for a new theory.
Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 74: 366-375.

Schmidt RA, Lee TD (1999) Motor Control and Learning. A Behavioral Emphasis. Champaign, IL:
Human Kinetics.

Shapiro DC, Zernicke RF, Gregor RJ, Diestel JD (1981) Evidence for generalised motor programs using
gait pattern analysis. Journal of Motor Behavior, 13: 33-47.