Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Mystery of Motion

One of the reasons for writing this blog was to try to make sense of the mysterious way running, a simple, repetitive activity, can be both immensely satisfying and mentally stimulating. Sometimes I still thinks it might be a dull grind (usually just before I leave the house on a mucky day) but experience has taught me otherwise. I know it is not true and running can make you feel more alive. But I don’t fully understand why and I don’t think I ever will. The best I can hope for is to be able accumulate fragments of evidence puzzle over the fact that even the simplest human movement can be a thing of wonder.  I was reminded of this in a startling way by an article in the Observer. It might not be about running but it is about the mystery of movement and the complexity of the interaction with the brain.  Anyway cycling is also a topic for this blog so it is right that I share it.

Apparently the video of the man with advanced Parkinson’s riding a bike has been around for 2 years (when a paper was published in the New England Journal of Medicine) but I knew nothing of it until now and so the surprise was complete. The only reaction is “Wow!”, “How can this be?”, “This isn’t right.” “It’ impossible!”. I was stupefied as I just could not compute what I was seeing and I still have no idea about how it is possible.

Riding is a learnt skill (obviously as nothing in our evolutionary history could have prepared us for a bike). It is therefore remarkable that this acquired ability can be embedded deeply enough to survive whilst the hard-wired capability of walking is attacked by the Parkinson’s disease. The suggestion that the pedals coming round act as a constant unconscious reminder of what to do is an ingenious idea but it is just a guess and anyway what happens if you freewheel? The other explanation that our base skills (like walking or running) have different neurological pathways to acquired skills and can be selectively targeted by the disease, seems to need a host of complicated proofs before it can become a solid hypothesis. We really have no idea about how and why.

I am both baffled and in awe. It has left me even more convinced of two things: the first is how unfathomable we all are as animals and the second is what a wonderful invention the bicycle is.

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