Observing Mobility. The recent death of the renowned evolutionary theorist, Stephen J. Gould, recalls his intriguing comment that we’re inside-out crustaceans. A crustacean’s skeleton is on the outside, ours is on the inside. Our soft tissue and appendages are out where we can readily observe them.
Llinas (2002) expands briefly on this concept in his excellent discussion of the evolution and nature of our brain, but it’s something that’s pleasant to explore further.
Having an internal skeleton means that we have a direct, intimate, sensory knowledge of how our external motor system functions. From birth on, we can observe and feel muscular contractions and their relationship to body movements. We’ve created tools that accurately measure the properties of our marvelous movement system. Further, we’ve always celebrated this basic universal understanding and awe of our motor system through performance and competition.
Well, why not? Our motor system is perhaps the definitive element of our biological self. Compare the two major biological groups, plants and animals. Plants don’t have a brain and animals do. Plants don’t have a brain because they’re not going anywhere — and if you’re not going anywhere, you don’t even need to know where you are. What’s the advantage for a rooted tree to realize that other trees are better situated, or to be able to observe approaching loggers?
On the other hand, if you have legs/wings/fins/etc that permit mobility, you need a sensory system to tell you about here and there. Then you need a make-up-your-mind system to decide if there is better than here, or here is better than there. Finally, you need to activate your motor system to move to there, if you’ve decided it’s better than here.
We spend much of our extended juvenile development period informally observing and exploring our motor system. We have to learn how to regulate and predict its movements and the movements of others (and of moving objects). It’s a complex system that must be activated for thousands of hours to reach the adult proficiency levels of complex movements. We’ve turned much of this juvenile practice activity into enjoyable games.
Our mobility systems can even get us beyond direct physical movement. For example, our vocal apparatus can rhythmically move air molecules that hit the eardrums of others at a distance and create brain-to-brain language connections. Mastering the movements involved in spoken (and written) language is thus another major childhood task.
My March 2002 Brain Connection column (From Video Games to the Internet) discussed how important it is for young children to get on a tricycle at three if they hope to drive a car at 16, and to similarly begin with video games at an early age if they later hope to effectively travel the Internet.
We’re fascinated by those who move (or move objects) at virtuoso levels. The whole world gathers every two years to discover who can jump the highest, throw things the farthest, run or skate the fastest, ski the best. We attend concerts to observe others sing or play musical instruments, and sporting events to watch others throw balls through hoops or hit them with bats. It may seem kind of foolish, but it’s also quite human.
Observing Cognition. Although we all develop an excellent common understanding of movement via our continuous observation of its dynamics, our brain’s processing systems (that regulate movement among other things) are located within a hidden bony skull and spine. So from our brain’s perspective, it’s sort of like we have a crustacean brain— the soft cognitive tissue is on the inside.
We thus don’t have the direct observational access to what’s occurring within our skull/spine that we have of the actions of our motor system. For example, we can’t hear the sounds active neurons make or smell our brain, and our brain has no pain receptors.
This lack of direct sensory access to cognitive processes led to the development of many competing speculations and theories about how our brain/mind functions. Indeed, Behaviorism, which dominated psychology for much of the past century, focused on the observable motor behavior that emerges out of cognition, rather than on inaccessible cognitive activity.
Brain imaging technology is now finally providing this direct observational window into our cognitive functions. It provides an observable computerized representation of our working brain. Unfortunately, the current imaging technology requires the imaged subject to function within a laboratory setting, but we can anticipate the development of powerful portable imaging technologies that can depict the brain activity of subjects who are interacting with objects/events in a normal environment. We will then have moved toward the direct, intimate, observable relationship we’ve long enjoyed with our motor system.
The recent emergence of biologically based theories of consciousness (Damasio, 1999. Edelman, 2000) are good examples of the shift towards a more direct understanding of our brain’s mysterious processing systems. We can expect this process to escalate in the years ahead. Imagine what it might be like to finally understand our brain’s thinking activities at the same level that we now enjoy for movement.