Women in Science: Learning to walk
Learning a new movement is something we are able to achieve quickly and most of us take for granted. As children we are constantly learning new motor skills such as: writing (on walls!), dressing, catching or riding a bike. Even as adults we retain the ability to learn novel tasks. For example, if you are teaching someone in your family to play bowling on the WII, they will within a few minutes be hitting the virtual target, and with practice their skill will steadily improve. Some of us are quicker at learning and better at performing motor tasks than others. Many of us reflect that we were better at performing motor skills when we were younger…
The time it takes to pick up a new motor skill depends on the complexity of the motor task and the learning environment. Complicated tasks, such as learning to drive a car safely on our busy roads, will take a long time to master. Performing motor skills requires interaction between our senses and muscles; this often requires the co-ordination of many different muscles and the integration of different senses.
When driving a car we have to co-ordinate both arm and leg movements, and then make adjustments based on what we feel from the steering wheel and see and hear. As we learn a new skill our brain and nervous system works out how to efficiently use the sensory information and coordinate the muscles until we become expert performers and no longer have to think about each movement. Have you ever driven to work and not really remembered how you got there?
But how automatic are we? The effects of the additional task of using a mobile phone when driving can have dramatic consequences. Performing more difficult motor tasks does require more concentration. For example, I doubt if many of us can do mathematics whilst playing tennis or snooker and still perform both tasks to a high level. Why is this?
Carrying out research and experiments that attempt to work out how we move and develop ways to help people optimise performance of everyday tasks is what I do as a researcher and am lucky enough to be able to call my work. Let’s consider the simplest but most fundamental of tasks, walking. When you first learnt to walk did you consciously consider how to put each foot in front of the other? Most of us would agree that toddlers learn walking as they pursue more interesting activities without spending too much time considering walking itself. But is this true as an adult? Do you think about placing your feet when you are walking?
I know I think about how I am walking if someone or lots of people are watching me and I want to portray a certain image, or if it’s tricky or slippery terrain, but if I am just plodding along, then no. So if simple movements like walking are automatic, why then when I am walking along do I tend to slow down if I talk to someone. By using imaging tools and movement sensors researchers have been able to look at brain and nervous system activity whilst people walk.
Using this technology we now know that human walking is driven by many areas of the brain which effectively control the movement of our legs. We also understand that the areas at the front of the brain, associated with thinking, are also involved in keeping you walking, even when you are just plodding along. This partly explains why when someone is upset you can tell from observing the way they are walking. This explains why if you need to walk fast, to say catch a bus, you are unlikely to also be able to plan the household budget at the same time, you simply can’t do both. Maybe try it!
This research has implications for athletes, the military and for you. If you’re into exercise, brain imaging techniques have been able to help explain why athletes find it difficult to make decisions when they are working extremely hard. This knowledge can also help us work out how to keep older people, and people with conditions affecting their brain mobile for longer.
As we get older our ability to walk safely gradually declines. Researchers have found that our ability to handle information when we move is affected as we get older, and particularly when we have neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s, Stroke or Dementia. Knowing this and understanding why the problem occurs has allowed researchers to explore how to help people safely perform motor skills such as walking and driving, and is being used to develop inventions to keep people mobile for longer and enable people with disabilities to regain and maintain their mobility.
Professor Helen Dawes is speaking at ZSL and L’Oréal-UNESCO’s Soapbox Science on Southbank, 16th July 2012 www.zsl.org/soapboxscienceTagged in: automatic movement, disability, driving, gaming, health, learning to walk, mobility, motor skills, Movement, science
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