A man in a suit and bowler hat walks awkwardly down the street, each convoluted step a labored movement. He lifts up one knee, then briefly stoops. Stepping forward, he swings the other leg out to the side then kicks high in the air. In this old Monty Python skit, the man works for the Ministry of Silly Walks. It's his job to walk this way. The rest of us, however, tend to stroll along--or throw baseballs, or lift coffee mugs--in a much more efficient manner.
There's a nearly infinite number of silly walks, throws, and lifts, but somehow people tend to settle on one best way of doing these things. However, scientists studying motor control have been hard pressed to figure out exactly why we move the way we do. To help solve this recalcitrant problem, Konrad Körding and colleagues, as reported in the open-access journal PLoS Biology, took a page from economists, who have long used equations called utility functions that incorporate the costs and benefits of a situation. Say you like oranges better than apples, but oranges cost more. Given a certain budget for fruit, the utility function says how many of each you should buy. Similarly, Körding and colleagues observed people's preferred movements, then inferred an underlying utility function that presumably describes bias in the nervous system for different movements.
The researchers were able to rank a large set of different movements, varied by duration and resistance encountered, relative to each other by individuals' preferences. They found a surprising amount of agreement among the subjects on which movements were preferable. They also got a counterintuitive result: as the duration of the resistance got longer, people actually preferred stronger resistance.
By showing that utility functions can be of use not only in explaining the marketplace but also motor control, Körding and colleagues have added a new tool to biologists' repertoire. Though their approach hasn't closed the case on the mysteries of movement, it could help explain why we settle for a particular, non-silly walk.
Source: Eurekalert & othersLast reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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