Thought is for Moving

| November 30, 2011

If you think about this question for any length of time, it’s blindingly obvious why we have a brain. We have a brain for one reason, and one reason only, and that is to produce adaptable and complex movements.

—Daniel Wolpert

I’ll stop there before I transcribe the whole thing…

Shortly after this, though, he cracks a joke about tenure (and eating your own brain), and this, to me, poses an interesting question regarding the implications of movement for education. If, as he is suggesting, all of our valorized capacities for “thought” are really in the service of movement, then why is it that education as a practice systematically brackets out all but a very specific subset of movements? We sit still and master the sub-lingual. Could it be that this is precisely the mechanism of valorization? Or in turn, that this valorization is the very justification for the bracketing? In that sense we could say that we spend an inordinate amount of time learning to move in very specific ways as a way of being rather stupid movers as a whole. The question that should concern us is what we are up to when we do that.

Speaking of academia and being oblivious, he poses a rather interesting theory about why escalation happens when children fight. To escalate, in the context of education, we could put it thus: why do such apparently smart people as professors behave like such children? Answer, we are oblivious to the perceived impact of our actions on others. That is, we think we get hit harder than we hit. Tit for tat. (Not tat for tat.)

But to de-escalate we might want to introduce some subtlety. Truth be told, I’ve never been a huge fan of these “processor” models, and particularly the way in which “noise” in the system is treated as a problem. In terms of academia, we could say that what is interesting is not that people are rational processors, saddled with the “negative consequences of noise” in the system, (smart people behaving like children) but rather that the system as a whole has an inherent variability within it that allows for thoughtful movement. In other words, we should take the first premise of his talk with more seriousness, and realize that movement isn’t about commanding proper movements in relationship to a variable world complicated by noise, but rather that this noise and variability IS movement, of which we are a part. It is not that the brain needs to solve for movement, as if it were a hardware/software problem. (This is why robotics struggles: it borrows this framework from education.) Instead, the brain and body are inherently in movement and are emergent properties of this environment of which they are a part.

So let us propose the same for that robotic-brain that we call school. What if it is not that robots are poor movers, and we are constantly trying to teach ourselves how to teach a robot to move better, but rather, that it is through our fascination with robots that we learn about poor movement? We fetishize the cutting edge of robotics—how robots can learn given their crude nature, and inability to handle noise and complex variability—but why do we bother to care about this oddly retrograde frontier? (As Wolpert points out, any 3 year old can trounce the most sophisticated robot.) What if it is a disguise for our real interest in learning how to be more robotic? Schools, in only an apparent paradox, would be the place where movement unlearns. They are incredibly sophisticated at this.

You can see this desire even in the language of motor learning, where “degrees of freedom” is a euphemism for our fear of movement, the chaos of unintelligible variability, and the solution to be solved for is “motor control.” No doubt it is not simply a question of turning this around and arguing for freedom, academic or otherwise. It is rather more complex. Is it not, just like the children fighting, a problem of not knowing what we are doing, or why we find ourselves in the back seat in the first place? We move, reigning in or letting loose, feeling our way, in order to discover something of what our situation is.

One of the most daunting questions we movers face today might be, “what are we doing when we are doing school?”