PE.910 | January IAP 2002 | Undergraduate

Physical Intelligence

Lecture Summaries

The lecture summaries on this page are by Noah Riskin and Aline Newton from 2005. They are used with permission.

1 What is Physical Intelligence? From the extraordinary performances of Olympic athletes to simple, everyday actions such as standing and walking, all of our movements depend on an ongoing process of spatial orientation, organization in relation to gravity, proprioception, and sensory perception. Physical Intelligence, then, is this remarkable coordination of intention, muscle, motor and sensory/perception systems functioning in extraordinary accord with the environment-embodied mind in action.
2 Orientation in Relation to Gravity Before you take a step or raise an arm, your body has already anticipated the shift in your center of gravity and made countless tiny adjustments to help you maintain your balance. These “pre-movements” are what keep you from tumbling forward reaching for a glass, or falling when you turn suddenly upon hearing your name. Patterns of preparatory movement organize your orientation to gravity, and set the tone for all other, more complex actions. This week we will explore the individual strategies each of us employs to establish our highly refined and subtle rapport with gravity.
3 Perception Perception is the basic language of physical intelligence. When we sit, stand, reach, or run to kick a ball, it is sensory information that guides our movement. Conversely, action underlies perception: we move our fingers to touch; we turn our heads to catch a sound or to see. Sensory perception can actually be considered simulated action based on physical experience: to see a chair is to imagine the action of sitting in it. As Merleau-Ponty said, “vision is the brain’s way of touching.” And, we might add, touching is one way the body sees. Sensing and motor skills are in constant conversation with each other. The organization of our movement patterns depend upon our habits of perception. How, then, might an education of the senses be included in physical education?
4 Proprioception

While we see, touch and hear the world around us, there is also the process locating ourselves from inside. This manifests primarily as a sense of our weight and perceived boundaries defined by where skin meets world. Sensations from the skin, from muscles and bones make up the “somatic self”, telling us where we are and where we end. Antonio Damasio theorizes that a large part of what allows us to feel like the same person from day to day is the sameness of these signals from the body day after day; “somatic markers” tell me that I am still “me”.

Most of us have only a vague sense for our physical selves on this level. Yet, as a key dimension of physical intelligence, proprioception can be cultivated. Furthering our work from Week 3, we will excavate these perceptions to gain an appreciation and awareness for our “inner” sense of a physical self.

5 Spatial Perception Locating ourselves in space is the other side of our physical sense of self. Using primarily sound and vision, we orient ourselves to the world around us. Using our physical sense of self as our point of reference, we construct the spatial relationships we see. This is the threshold or interface where our “inner” world of perceptions meets an “outer” world. Movement is organized and reorganized based on these relationships. Physical intelligence, then, is the fluency with which we conduct this kinesthetic conversation.
6 Complex Coordination

Walking represents an extraordinarily complex coordination of actions, delicately tensioned between balancing and falling. Once mastered, we walk with hardly a thought-on varied terrain, at different speeds, while carrying heavy objects, and in conversation with others.

In walking, the entire body-head, spine, torso, arms, legs, hands and feet work together in rapport with the physical conditions-gravity, ground, spatial relationships - to propel us forward. Contrary to conventional understanding, it is not the skeleton that walks, but a whole-body web of tissue, stretching and contracting to harness the potential energy available. Physical intelligence coordinates this complexity. With so many variables, many strategies are possible. Thus, the pattern and rhythm of our gait is highly individualized. And, though locomotion can be nearly effortless, we can and do get in its way.

Week 6 we will experiment with the biomechanics of walking, looking specifically at the contribution of legs, arms and spine to see if we can experience what seems a mundane activity in new ways.

7 Learning and Development The basic grammar of human movement begins before we are born. In utero, tiny undulations from head to tail begin the complex coordination of motor skills that will so occupy an infant and toddler as he or she learns to negotiate the world. Watching a child learn to walk is testament to the physical intelligence - and persistence, of the system as trial and error establishes skill. Further, physical play in childhood greatly expands our range and repertoire, as every aspect of our balance, coordination, and motor skills is challenged. Here, a vocabulary of fundamental movement is developed that serves us for a lifetime-from everyday activities to Olympic level performances.
8 E-motion

Walking a 4-inch beam, 50 feet in the air is no easy task. Below a level of conscious awareness, the brain is constantly responding “emotionally” to the world. Before we are even aware of feeling afraid, for example, physical responses have already begun: pounding heart, sweaty palms, tense muscles. The physical sensations in turn tell us what we are feeling. This is yet another aspect of physical intelligence, or communication with our organism. Such reactions have their roots in human evolution, but may not be completely adapted to the lives most of us lead. A fear of heights and performance anxiety are more obvious “outside” threats. However, we can experience poor perceptual orientation or being off balance, as “danger,” creating muscle tension and restriction that greatly affects how we live our body.

As experienced in previous classes, we can learn to become aware of such automatic/autonomic processes. In this class we will experiment with situations that bring these responses into awareness. Our effort will be to understand both their affect, and how we can better work with such powerful influences.

9 “Tooling” Your body is your first tool. Before language or concept, learning is a physical process built upon the interactions of body and world; eyes and hand reach into the world, our legs transport us. Inversely, tools are extensions of the body, born of its interaction with the physical world; a hand becomes a hammer, bipedal action becomes a bike. Even when we consider information technologies, we must ultimately look to the physical experience of the body in its context for the roots of such machines. As the basis of our experience, the body is present-often visible-in all that we create. The body and the tools it creates, then, are manifestations of our physical intelligence.
10 Flight “Air” Jordan, Wonderwoman, Baryshnikov, or simply a child’s leap from a swing set; what is the perennial appeal of defying gravity, if only for a moment? From high-level athletes who make it look effortless, to the aspirations underlying the space program, human beings are constantly teasing the limitations of the body and of our physical condition. In our final week we will use “flight” as a vehicle to overview the cultural tension between the body and the passion of our scientific/technological pursuits.