A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A 'Do It Yourself' Experiment about Thinking and Movement

For a long time now, one central rule in the Western-psychology game has been this: Mind-stuff makes body-stuff happen. In the olden days, stories using that rule might have talked about how thoughts of motion, enacted first on a Cartesian stage, transfer the vital energy needed to create movement in flesh. These days stories using that rule might be about how frontal-cortex based decisions to move, enacted first in an information-based simulations taking place in your brain, transfer motor-commands through neurons to your muscles. This is certainly a more refined and sophisticated way of envisioning the relationship between mind and behavior, but it retains the principles of the simple rule (i.e., same rule-system, different flavor text). As such, the more refined version also retains the primary problem of the original story. What problem? That 'thinking about moving' and 'moving' are just not related in that manner. Let's drop all the other kooky agendas of this blog for a minute, and just do some experimental phenomenology. Here is a 'thought' experiment you can try yourself and do with others.... 

The Experiment

If you are doing this on yourself: Read all the instructions before you begin, but try the experiment before reading the discussion.

Step 1: Lie down, remain still, relax, and keep your body relaxed.

Step 2: Pick an object in the room and try to will it to you with the powers of your mind. If you're having trouble imagining what it feels like to do this, just remember when you were a kid and tried to use 'the force' to make things happen. If you don't remember that, or never did it, just imitate this kid, but with less bodily movement. Imagine the object coming towards you. Focus. Concentrate. Think. Try it seriously for at least 20 or 30 seconds. Try to keep your body as relaxed as possible while really trying.

Step 3: Concentrate on your left forearm and hand. If you can see it without moving your head, look at it and study it. Otherwise, just close your eyes and try to feel as much about your arm as you can. Feel the surface it is pressing against, distinguish each finger, notice your pulse.

Step 4: Now, using the power of your mind, just as you did in step 2, try to will your arm into motion. Imagine your hand and arm lifting off the ground. Focus. Concentrate. Think. Try for at least 20 seconds, but preferably for at least a minute.

Step 5: Lift your hand.

There, that's it.

Quick Discussion

After this experience, it should be painfully obvious that 'moving your hand' feels very, very different from 'thinking about moving your hand'. Some people might get an ever more dramatic effect. If I can get other people to lay down while I talk them through this process, it creates a state of brief paralysis in more than half of them. If they are sitting, I can usually get temporary paralysis in about a quarter. The duration usually last only a couple of seconds, but sometimes longer. Ironically, people who get paralyzed will probably tell you that they were stuck 'thinking about moving the hand' - they were struggling to stop thinking about it, so that they can actually do it.

Conclusion, thinking about moving doesn't cause moving. This is the same conclusion if you like the old fashion thoughts-animate-flesh dualism or if you prefer the modern neural-simulations-control-action story. That doesn't mean that thoughts and neural simulations don't exist, nor that those processes are unrelated to movement, I'm not arguing anything like that at the moment. However, this simple test of experience does, in my opinion, demonstrate that if the two processes are related, then we need a much better way to talk about the relationship.

That's all for now. If you try it, please let me know what happens, and what you conclude from your own experiencing of the events. Even if you don't try it, let me know if you think I've cheated anywhere in how I set this up.

P.S. For my professorial friends out there... if you really want to have fun, try this as a class activity. It's not nearly as dramatic when people are sitting, but if you have enough students in class, the effect will still be obvious. Just so everyone notices, add a step 0 where you just tell them all to raise their left hands, and then point out how quickly they all did it.


  1. Great post. The mind-body relationship as you've described it not just a problem for psychology, though, because so many other disciplines have inherited this painfully "modern" understanding of human action. Reminds me of your previous post about that indicates that often the actions we know the very best we don't need to think about doing it; a test of our knowing is no longer needing to think to do.

  2. Did this demo today for the first day of advanced behaviorism class.

    No one had a problem lifting their hand in the last step, but luckily they didn't know I was hoping for that. The demo still created a good basis for discussing the relationship between thinking and behaving. It took a bit of pushing for me to get them to talk about how different 'moving' and 'thinking about moving' were, experientially, but once they got started it was good.

    There were a few little comments and timid interjections. At some point they all agreed that in the last step they 1) heard me ask them to raise their hand, then 2) they thought about raising their hand, and then 3) they raised it - with the thinking causing the raising. Then came what I think was the crucial question (which might not have been so crucial without that lead in): "If you all agreed that thinking caused hand raising in the last step, why on earth didn't you hand raise before, when you were thinking about it so much more intently?"

    That elicited a handful of "aha" grins from students, and I didn't have to say very much in the conversation afterwords.

  3. I think your conclusions are flawed and maybe self serving. The pivotal word in your instructions was 'TRY' as in 'try to will your arm into motion'.
    Any hypnotherapist would recognise your script as being similar to the ones that they would use in the early stages of talking to a new client.
    You have placed your students into a secure, comfortable, relaxed and compliant state of mind. In a sense they have momentarily surrendered their independent will in order to allow you to conduct your lesson/experiment. In that context they allow themselves to be transfixed onto the sound of your voice and they become instructible in a very literal sense. While in this temporary state of literal compliance, the word 'TRY' takes on its literal meaning which is; attempt but do not succeed!
    Hypnotherapists use the word 'TRY' as a way to reinforce early stages of hypnotic induction. I do not believe that they would accept your contention that you have somehow proved a significant difference between thinking about moving and actual moving. This is simply because they would say that you had actually asked your students to only TRY to move, and that is exactly what they did!

  4. Anonymous,
    Interesting catch! Would it be better, in your view, to say "think about moving your arm" or more bluntly "think your arm into moving"? I will be teaching intro psych again in the fall, and would be happy to try with a different wording.

    I think the more interesting phenomenon is the occasional person who is paralyzed when later told "now raise your arm". I would be interested in know the hypnotherapy take on that.

    P.S. My favorite business name here in Altoona is a hypnotherapy place. It is called "Imagine That".