posted 16 August 2004


William H. Calvin, "Planning ballistic movements as a foundation for language." Keynote address to the FELDENKRAIS Educational Foundation of North America (22 August 2004). See also

Powerpoint slides here.

William H. Calvin 
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 University of Washington




Planning ballistic movements as a foundation for language

William H. Calvin

(abstract for a keynote address to the FELDENKRAIS(R) Educational Foundation of North America)

For slow movements, progress reports can update the plan and correct an approximate intention. But for ballistic movements that are over-and-done in 1/8 sec, the feedback is too slow to correct the movement; you have to make the perfect plan during get set.

We know that our ancestors were eating a lot of meat by about 1.8 million years ago. They had probably figured out how to bring down big grazing animals, and with regularity. But accurate throwing (as opposed to, say, the chimp’s fling of a branch) is a difficult task for the brain. During “get set” one must improvise an appropriate-to-the-target orchestration of a hundred muscles and then execute the plan without feedback.
While there are hundreds of ways to throw that would hit a particular target, they are hidden amidst millions of wrong answers, any one of which would cause dinner to run away. Planning it right the first time, rather than trying over and over, has real advantages.

The improvement during up-from-the-apes evolution doesn’t mean there was a bump developing on the skull that we might label “hand-arm planning center.” Nor is there a reason to expect it to rate a “for the exclusive use of” label. There is much evidence suggesting that oral-facial movement planning can overlap with that for hand-arm – and with that for language, both sensory and motor aspects.

So we might expect to see “improve one function, improve some others in passing.” If some brain circuits are capable of running a process for making multistage coherent plans, and judging them for quality against your memory of what’s reasonable and safe, biased by your emotions, drives, hopes, and fears, we have a prime candidate for the transition from the simple two-word sentences (what two-year-olds speak) to the long complicated sentences that express structured thoughts.

Just use the ballistic movement planning circuits for other similar tasks in the spare time. And what fits are the novel structured tasks of higher intellectual function, such as syntax, contingent plans, polyphonic music, getting the joke, and our search for how things all hang together (seen in crossword puzzles and in doing science). Yes, some of them “pay their way” subsequently, but the free lunch seems to be alive and well in the brain, where novel secondary uses abound.



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A Brief History
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