Prediction, Perception, and Challenging Bias

Jenn Pilotti

 

I stumbled across an unread motor control textbook sitting underneath a pile of books on my bedside table. In my world, this is akin to finding a clothing item that still has tags on it in one of my drawers—it represents something that is new, shiny, and brimming with possibilities.

Motor control, how we learn, and the value of integrating all of the senses is an aspect of movement and coaching that is frequently overlooked. In the rush to add load and achieve a specific skill, the act of coordination is often pushed aside in favor of specific cues coaches and teachers have been instructed to use to help people maintain proper form, implying there is a right way to move. If coordination refers to the system as a whole and includes the visual system and vestibular system as well as the neuromuscular system, then every skill can be taught many different ways, and the experience will be different, depending on where the attention is focused.

In the book, “Biological Learning and Control,” authors Shedmehr and Mussa-Ivaldi write, “One possibility is that our perception—that is, our ability to estimate the state of our body and the external world—is always a combination of two streams of information: one in which our brain predicts what we should sense, and one in which our sensory system reports what was sensed. The advantage of this is that if our expectations or predictions are unbiased…, then our perception…will be better than if we had to rely on sensory measurements alone.” (1).

When you consider a person’s individual response to a specific task, even if if’s something simple like getting out of a chair, there is a prediction about how that task will feel and how it should be done before the task is executed. If, for instance, you reach for an object to your left while standing, your neuromuscular system makes a number of rapid decisions about how to maintain your balance while reaching. If you were hooked up to an EMG, there would be increased activity through your legs and torso before you even lift the arm to reduce the amount of disturbance you experience so you don’t feel off-kilter.

Anticipatory postural adjustments, or APAs, are the culmination of all of the ways your system has available to predict the amount of disturbance that is likely to occur with the movement that is about to happen (2). In order for the movement to be effective, APAs must be highly adaptable—this means having multiple ways to reach for the object to the left is more beneficial than having only one way to reach for the object. Different environments for reaching will require different APAs—reaching for an object while standing on a rock will be different than reaching for an object while standing on carpet.

Let’s go back to the earlier example of getting up out of a chair. Because this is a task that is performed frequently throughout the day, assuming there is no musculoskeletal issue present, it’s not a movement that’s considered demanding or threatening, so there is no prediction that this movement is going to hurt. Getting up out of a chair resembles squatting, just with a rest at the bottom. What happens if you ask someone who gets out of a chair to squat and that individual has been told squatting is bad for the knees? What do you think the predictive nature of performing a squat will look like?

The way the task is performed will be affected by the assumption that squatting is bad for the knees and the person may experience pain or discomfort with the squat because of her biases, reinforcing the idea that squatting is bad for the knees.

What if the same person went to a yoga class two weeks later, because her doctor told her yoga has healing properties? And what if in that yoga class, she was asked to perform chair pose, essentially a squat with the knees and feet together? Do you think she would have pain?

Because our hypothetical person has been told yoga is good for her and the pose looks a little bit different than a standard squat, there is a high probability she won’t have discomfort. Her prediction is that the movement is safe because it’s in a yoga setting so the way she performs the movement will be less guarded and more coordinated than in the traditional fitness setting where she thought the squat was likely to hurt her.

I see this all of the time while works with personal training clients. I have had clients tell me many things are bad—squatting, deadlifting, planking, holding heavy things, push-ups… The list is long. People are given guidelines by well-intentioned individuals, such as chiropractors, physical therapists, physicians, fitness professionals, and movement professionals. However, it could be argued there is no bad movement, and if you view any task as an opportunity to organize and coordinate the entire system, there is a variation of every task out there that will work for each individual. Conversely, as soon as you tell someone a movement is “bad,” the bias will be that, indeed, the movement will be done in a way that hurts. There are an infinite number of ways to cue each movement, and it is the job of the trainer/teacher/coach to figure out the best place to direct a person’s attention so the skill can be performed in a way that is efficient, coordinated, and if needed, offers an alternative to the individual’s habits. Challenging biases also introduces variability—when someone with a specific idea about a squat being bad realizes squatting can be done in a pain free way, he or she is more likely to be willing to explore different squatting variations as strength and mobility improve.

One final note about challenging predictions and biases—if the goal is to empower people to feel more secure in their external environment and improve their ability to make accurate predictions about movement, it’s necessary to meet people where they are, challenge their biases in a way that feels safe, and gives them opportunity to succeed. When they gain confidence in their ability to accurately execute a task, then the task can become more complex by adding length, height, or introducing other variables.

In the video below, I am elevated a decent height about the ground. If I were asked to do this three years ago, I would have predicted the challenge was greater than my current capabilities and I would have passed. However, by working on crawling on the ground, on a 2×4, on two 2x4s, and eventually, elevated three or more feet off of the ground, my confidence in my ability to predict how to crawl at elevation while minimizing risk of falling grew. Creating confidence has benefits that extend beyond physical skills and abilities. It cultivates emotional awareness, increases mental strength and confidence, and establishes a deeper connection between the physical and mental state. So challenge your biases and learn to listen to your senses, all of them, for a more enriched movement experience.

 

 

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Balance. It’s easier to feel stable when your center of mass is low, near the ground. Practicing skills on or just off of the ground creates confidence while developing the strength, mobility, and coordination required to execute the task in a way that feels safe.. .. In the book, “Biological Learning and Control,” authors Shedmehr and Mussa-Ivaldi write, “One possibility is that our perception—that is, our ability to estimate the state of our body and the external world—is always a combination of two streams of information: one in which our brain predicts what we should sense, and one in which our sensory system reports what was sensed. The advantage of this is that if our expectations or predictions are unbiased…, then our perception…will be better than if we had to rely on sensory measurements alone.” Remaining unbiased requires keeping an open mind, not viewing specific movements as right or wrong or good or bad. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that a lack of bias may improve our perception? #playdaily .. .. (The quote above resulted in an entire post for #thinkmovement . It should be up in the next week.).. .. (@aaronmartintin had a great post on IG about good vs. new movement yesterday. It’s worth a read.)

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