Thursday, 24 January 2013

Is hefting to perceive the affordance for throwing a smart perceptual mechanism?

In the last post, I reviewed Geoff's first paper looking at whether people can perceive the affordance for throwing an object to a maximum distance and a first swing at identifying the information specifying the affordance. People can perceive the affordance. Bingham et al then identified an invariant relation between the timing of the motions of the wrist and elbow when people hefted the balls they chose as optimal for throwing, and showed that this kinematic pattern specified a peak in the function which determined how much kinetic energy was transferred to the ball. They suggested that this relation in the joint movements served as information for the dynamic property which led to a maximum distance throw, and that this is how hefting was able to provide information about throwing. They suggested that this was a smart perceptual mechanism for perceiving the affordance property.

That was where things stood until Zhu & Bingham (2008) ran an extensive replication and extension of the original study, to test the specific smart perceptual mechanism proposed by Bingham et al (1989). 

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Hefting for a Maximum Distance Throw

From the task dynamic analysis of throwing for maximum distance, we've identified the fact that for a given release angle and maximum release velocity, there is an object whose size and weight optimises the distance it will travel when thrown. Can people perceive this combination ahead of time? More specifically, can people identify the object which affords throwing to a maximum distance, and if so, how?

Bingham, Schmidt & Rosenblum (1989) is the first paper investigating this question. It is a bear of a paper; I've stripped a lot of the methodological detail out in my summary so I can focus on the bigger picture. That bigger picture is this; Bingham et al first check whether people can identify objects that afford throwing to a maximum distance by hefting them ahead of time (they can). They then investigate the kinematics of hefting to identify an invariant relation in the timing of the wrist and elbow velocities and relate that invariant to the dynamics of throwing (specifically how it maximises the transfer of kinetic energy from the torso muscles to the projectile). They propose that using this invariant reflects a smart perceptual solution (Runeson, 1977) to the problem of selecting objects to throw to a maximum distance - future work (Zhu & Bingham, 2008) will actually show that this specific smart mechanism doesn't hold up, although the replacement is smart too.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Do our fingers wrinkle in the wet to improve our grip?

If you sit in the bath for more than 10 minutes or so, you'll notice that your fingers get wrinkled like a prune. People thought for a while that this was a local response to the wet conditions, but it turns out the wrinkling is an active, neurally controlled process. In 1936 two scientists observed a boy who had suffered some temporary damage to the median nerve; he lost feeling in his thumb, index and middle finger and, surprisingly, those fingers didn't wrinkle in the wet. There's a great post on this case and some more recent work here.

Things that are under active control are usually functional; that is, they're usually doing something useful. In 2011, Mark Changizi and colleagues published a speculative piece in which they suggested that our fingers do not wrinkle randomly. Instead, they noted that the form of the wrinkles match efficient drainage networks, and suggested that perhaps the wrinkles act like rain tread to help water drain away from our fingertips when we grip things.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Using coordination to study learning across the lifespan

What happens to our ability to learn new movement skills as we age? There is surprisingly little research on this topic; a relatively recent review (Voelcker-Rehage, 2008) found only 25 articles about learning in old age, and no systematic programme of work. The answer to this question matters a lot; rehabilitation after events such as a stroke pretty much always entail (re)learning movement skills, and if our ability to learn gets worse with age, rehabilitation faces an uphill struggle. 

I have been studying coordinated rhythmic movement for some time now, and now we have a good handle on the task dynamic my colleagues at Indiana and I have begun using it to study the process of learning more generally. We decided to use it to look at learning in old age, to see what we could see.

This project grew out of a grant I had from Remedi when I was a post-doc in Aberdeen. I wanted to use coordination to look at learning post-stroke. One of the problems with studying this is finding useful novel tasks to learn - you need to give the stroke patients something they've never done before so you can be sure that any improvement is about learning, and not simply recovery of function. My thought at the time was that I could use any changes at 180° to assess recovery and changes at 90° to assess learning. We tested a huge number of patients and age matched controls, but the project didn't pan out because neither group (all aged around 65) couldn't learn to move at 90°. The question remained, what was going on? We now have the first of three papers on this question out in press.