The Brain is for Movement

I just watched a nice TED talk by neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert on how the brain controls movement. Check it out below.

In case you don't want to watch (I would usually rather read than listen myself), here is a brief summary of the points I found interesting along with some of my own thoughts.

First, the origin and ultimate reason for the brain's existence is not to help us think or feel or create art, but to control the movement of the body.

An interesting illustration of the uselessness of a brain in a body without movement is the sea squirt, which spends the first part of its life as an animal moving around, and the second part attaching itself to a good piece of rock and then camping out as a plant. As soon as it settles down, does it use this time as an opportunity to meditate, or think about the meaning of life? No, it eats its brain for the energy. Yummy.

We tend to be impressed by the "higher" functions of the brain, such as its ability to think, feel, empathize, or create art or science. However, the brain was evolving for a long time before it developed any of these functions, and it spent much of that time working on better movement - movement with more precision, differentiation, and sophistication. It's a very hard engineering problem to control a body with many degrees of freedom, and the brain's accomplishments in that regard are in many ways more impressive than its abstract reasoning abilities.

For example, as pointed out by Wolpert, we have created a computer program that can beat the world's greatest chess players, but cannot build a robot that can pick up a piece and move it from square to square. Computer programs can compose credible symphonies, destroy KenJen in Jeopardy, and carry on conversations that seem very human. But no robots can even come close to the movement skill of a three year old in walking from place to place, picking up objects, and performing other simple movements we completely take for granted.

In the next post I'll talk a little more about Wolpert's explanation for how we learn movement, and how this relates to some principles in the Feldenkrais Method.

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