What Happens in the Brain When You Plan and Execute a Movement

By on September 18, 2015

When you perform even a simple movement, it involves a huge amount of activity in the brain. Even something as simple as catching a ball requires you to plan the movement, decide to act, calculate speed, weight and trajectory, identify the position of your body in space and more – all in a fraction of a second.

Take this simple, everyday movement for example...

Take this simple, everyday movement for example…

In this article I’m diving pretty deep into what’s actually going on here and into which areas of the brain are involved in which aspects of any given movement. It’s heavy stuff but fascinating. Do note though, that this is a basic and generalized explanation of what’s going on. Many, many more brain areas are in fact involved in each movement – more than I could possibly learn about and more than science has even uncovered. If I’ve made any mistakes, then I apologize.

Still, I think we’ve definitely covered enough here to provide some real take-home lessons and ideas for improving your training and athletic performance – and perhaps even for helping you to stay one step ahead in the boardroom and other less obvious scenarios.

Let’s see how deep the rabbit hole goes…

Preparing for Action


Before a complex movement can occur in your body, it first must occur in the mind. That isn’t to say only that the brain must instruct the body to move but also that it must ‘rehearse’ the movement the way it wants to go and then prepare the body for that movement.

Say you’re looking at a football and thinking about sending it flying. Before you run up to it and kick, you will first play the movement over in your mind as a form of visualization. This appears to occur in a specific part of the brain primarily, that being the posterior parietal cortex. Damage to this area cause apraxia, hemispatial neglect and difficulty with grasping. Fascinatingly, it has even been suggested that our ‘concept of free will’ is a result of activity in this area (1). That is to say, that the belief that we ‘pre-planned’ our movements, creates the impression (illusion?) that we are in control.

When you plan a movement in a computer game, I wonder whether you visualize the movement of the character, or of your fingers pressing the buttons. Maybe both? Certainly, when you visualize kicking a ball, you’ll be relying on a kind of in-built ‘physics engine’ to simulate where the ball will go. When you do something simple like picking up a glass of water, your posterior parietal cortex tells you how many motor units you’ll need to recruit for that to work, based on the amount of water in said glass (which obviously dictates its weight).

With that movement fully visualized, you next need to decide that you’re going to go ahead and do it. All this happens in the blink of an eye and you probably have several options available to you, from kicking the ball to turning and running in the other direction. This is where the basal ganglia may come in; a brain area that is generally believed to play a role in ‘action selection’ (2). This is what allows you to switch from one behavior to another, whether that means pulling out of a punch to block at the last moment, or just deciding to stop fannying around and actually lift that barbell off the bench. The cerebrum also plays an important role in conscious movement, taking into account information from the senses and conscious thoughts to trigger action in the premotor, supplementary motor and motor cortices.

Orientation, Balance and Precision

Next comes the premotor cortex then. This part of the brain lies just anterior to your primary motor cortex (which is the one you may have heard of). It appears to be involved in ‘sensory guidance of movement’ and it controls orientation and proximity before you begin the movement. What’s also exciting about the premotor cortex is that it’s what facilitates movement as a response to a particular sensory cue: for instance, it’s what allows us to block when we see that punch incoming, or to backflip over a missile in Bayonetta (3).

The cerebellum also plays a role in this stage of the movement and is used in balance, timing and other fine tuning elements of the movement. According to Wikipedia:

“The cerebellum does not initiate movement, but it contributes to coordination, precision, and accurate timing. It receives input from sensory systems of the spinal cord and from other parts of the brain, and integrates these inputs to fine-tune motor activity.”

So if you’re playing a computer game and you have to run through a laser that’s appearing and disappearing, the cerebellum may be what allows you to time that movement to avoid getting fried (4). Timing by the way, is a completely underrated aspect of athletic performance and martial arts.

archery

Information from the superior and inferior occipital gurus is used for ‘egocentric’ and ‘allocentric’ aiming respectively. Now you know…

Our proprioception will also play a role. Using information from the posterior column medial lemniscus pathway to the cerebrum (for conscious proprioception) and from the dorsal spinocerebellar tract and ventral spinocerebellar tract to the cerebellum (for unconscious proprioception), we need to have an understanding of where our body currently is in space in order to coordinate the next movement.

The supplementary motor cortex is used to help with complex movements and specifically complex two-handed movements. The motor cortex itself though is what finally sends signals via the central nervous system to your muscles to control movement. As I’ve discussed in previous articles, this then leads to the recruitment of motor units comprised of bunches of muscle fibers. The brain only engages as many motor units as is necessary to provide the force determined by the posterior parietal cortex, while constant feedback from the muscles reaching the motor cortex, along with visual information reaching the premotor cortex allows us to modulate this mid-movement and adjust the amount of force we’re generating. This creates a kind of feedback loop.

Brain Plasticity and Movement Training

While I can’t find the reference right now, it appears that rehearsing a movement in your mind’s eye and then performing it as previously visualized, will result in the release of dopamine to reward and cement the action. This is how we improve over time: not only by rehearsing the movement (which leads to associated neurons wiring together) but also by strengthening the connections that lead to the most desirable results more than those that don’t. In this way, we classically condition ourselves – we don’t need a dog treat, just knowing everything went to plan is reward enough.

The motor cortex actually contains clusters of neurons that literally represent the various parts of our body. If you stimulate one spot on the motorcotex, you’ll feel a tickling in your face. Stimulate another and your arm will swing up. Some parts of the body are represented by larger areas of brain however, which in turn relates to the amount of control/sensitivity we have in those areas. The area for the hand for instance is massive compared to the area for the elbow, due to the sensitivity and dexterity of our fingers.

Through repeated training and focusing on the fingers, it is actually possible to increase the size of areas for specific body parts. For example, if you were to learn to play the guitar, the representation of your fingers and hands would increase in size in the motor cortex. Blind people often have particularly large numbers of neurons controlling the fingers due to their ability to read brail (5).

Once a movement is ingrained enough, it can then occur almost automatically. This is what enables us to throw a ball without even thinking about it, or to catch our balance. This is also aided by our reflexive strength: muscular contractions that are almost beyond our control and which occur entirely on their own. For example, the impulse to contract muscles that suddenly lengthen enables us to stay on balance when someone tries to pull us over and it occurs without much interference from our ‘conscious’ brain (the frontal areas). We don’t visualize balancing, we just do it. In these instances, information about the length of a muscle is fed back to the brain via ‘muscle spindles’ which sense the changing shape of muscles. Likewise, I no longer visualize playing certain songs on the piano because the neural pathways are so deeply set in. Whereas my reflexive strength was learned incidentally through the process of growing up and learning to walk though, my piano playing was intentional learned via lots and lots of practicing and a very nice piano teacher who rewarded me with biscuits.

This is a desirable state and ultimately what our brains are moving us toward. The more movements become ingrained in the brain and become automatic, the faster we will be able to perform them and the more efficient our brain will be. When we get to this point, movements actually involve fewer areas of the brain and get to bypass some of the planning stage: for instance, once a complex motor movement is learned, we begin involving the posterior parietal cortex far less when repeating it (6).

To Recap…

  • To recap then, a movement starts with visualization, possibly located in the posterior parietal cortex.
  • Our basal ganglia then looks at the available data and helps us settle on that action. The cerebrum then directs us to make this physical action.
  • Then the premotor cortex takes into account information from our senses, including visual, auditory and tactile cues. Does our foot have a steady grip on the ground? This allows us to orient and prepare ourselves.
  • Our cerebellum supports this further, using information from our spine to help us balance and time our movement.
  • Information from various pathways leading to the cerebrum and cerebellum provide information of where our limbs are in space – our ‘proprioception’.
  • The supplementary motor cortex helps to coordinate the various parts of the body, especially for ‘contra lateral’ movement (like crawling)
  • And we have lift off! The motor cortex fires in the specific areas that relate to those body parts.
  • The nerves fire and our motor cortices engage – only as many as we need.
  • This causes contraction in the muscle fibers.
  • Sensory information including information from the muscle spindles returns to the brain.
  • We adjust our movement and the loop continues.

Visualization Training for Sports

So a lot actually occurs in the brain even before you make a single movement. Thus, the theory goes that you can actually get a lot of benefit from simply visualizing movements. This is an idea that’s unfortunately been completely taken advantage of by a lot of wishy-washy self-help though (visualization makes your dreams come true!), so we need to separate the fact from the pomp.

When you visualize a movement, you do indeed cause many of the same brain areas to light up, from the posterior parietal cortex to the premotor cortex. Thus, visualizing hitting a golf ball is indeed a little like practice.

I have proven this to myself with a little experiment recently. I tried throwing a ball with my left arm overhand and it was shit. I then sat on a park bench and rehearsed the technique in my mind’s eye over and over. I then reattempted to throw the ball and it went much further. I was able to iron out the kinks in my technique and even ‘feel’ where I was going wrong, without throwing anything.

I also have a very vivid memory of learning to ride a bike. I never could and didn’t have one to practice on, other than when I visited my cousins. Then one day I just felt like I could ride it: I literally felt it all click into place and lo and behold, the next time I tried, I was able to ride without stabilizers.

And in this study, it was found that the differences between expert and non-expert athletes exist just the same during visualization. Those who had automatized their movements were able to visualize the movement much more quickly (7). In another study (again, no link sorry), it was found that stroke victims were able to prevent tissue deterioration in the brain simply by visualizing movements. This could even increase motor unit recruitment during weightlifting by potentiating the neurons that will be involved in the movement (making them more likely to fire).

This has nothing to do with the ‘law of attraction’ though. It doesn’t mean that visualizing riches will make you rich. Likewise, you can’t grow muscle this way as you aren’t causing microtears or building up metabolites that lead to hypertrophy.

Similarly, just watching people play sports can actually improve your ability to play that sport. This provides your brain with a ‘model’ of perfect form which you can then adapt into your own visualizations. Watching someone perform a movement can even help you to ‘feel’ how that movement was performed due to ‘mirror neurons’ which fire as a result of our natural ‘empathy’ and the ability to embody others (8).

Of course the best way to learn a movement pattern though is still to perform it in person. This way, you’ll also be more likely to get that release of dopamine when you get it correct which will accelerate learning more than simple visualization. Likewise, you’ll need to practice in person if you want to involve a visual cue and the promoter cortex – for instance, this is how you’d ingrain the automatic blocking of punches for ‘no mind’ (AKA Bruce Lee style automatized fighting prowess).

blocking

Adapting Your Brain

It’s also possible that you can train your posterior parietal cortex to improve your ability to quickly and accurately visualize movements prior to carrying them out. Think about it: if reading brail can make the area of the brain responsible for your fingers increase, visualization should also be able to increase the grey matter in your posterior parietal cortex. Visualization is an incredibly powerful tool that we use every day whenever we plan a movement, remember something or daydream about our plans. Neuroimaging shows it plays a role in episodic memory (9).

Understand that even the ‘physics engine’ I talked about is something you learned via practice, development and brain plasticity. Were you born on a planet with lower gravity, your innate understanding of the way things move would be different. So practice using this in-built tool and make it more accurate! Even throwing and catching should do it.

It’s even important to have an accurate representation of your own physical capabilities – your own strength and speed for instance. This is what will prevent you from trying to jump over a gap that you in fact can’t – and likewise what will give you the confidence to ‘go for it’ if you can.

"What if, suddenly, you knew how much strength you had in your hands. I mean *exactly* how much." - The new Limitless TV series trailer.

“What if, suddenly, you knew how much strength you had in your hands. I mean *exactly* how much.” – The new Limitless TV series trailer.

Paying more attention to sensory input could also help you to improve your proprioception. Focus increases dopamine which helps enforce learning and plasticity and using the cerebellum more is likely to strengthen it. Next time you’re practicing your handstand, try to be acutely aware of all the information coming in from your muscle spindles, from your vestibular system and from your vision. Note where you’re going wrong so that you can better improve your control for next time!

The same goes for your cerebrum and your basal ganglia for action selection and decision making. Play complex sports and complex games and exercise your ability to visualize the outcome of your actions on the fly and select the best one. This way, you can learn to always be one step ahead of everyone else. Then, you can conquer the world.

Oh and let’s finish with one amazing, related fact…

Brain imaging of ‘the human calculator’ Scott Flansburg, shows that he’s actually able to use areas of the brain relating to the motor cortex when performing math, rather than the usual Brodmann area 44. As a result of this, he has been able to set world records with the speed of his calculations. This is just another demonstration of the potential power of visualization and the brain areas we’ve been talking about.

ScottFlansburg

And even more fascinatingly, it’s also not far off of the advice that another math-prodigy Daniel Tammet gives – that we should ‘feel’ the size of numbers. Stay tuned for my upcoming article on ‘speed math’ for more on all this…

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I’m an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I’ll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.

  • LibertarianUSA42

    this is similar to intent from the toltec tradition…

    • thebioneer

      That sounds interesting! What’s the gist?

  • John Alexander Butler Temple-C

    Very interesting. Can’t shake the implications of ‘free will’ however (ie we don’t possess it according to the currently understood laws of physics)… in essence, we don’t ‘choose’ to do any of those things any more than I’m ‘choosing’ to write this. They are all the consequences of previous actions (thinking included) that we effectively have no control over, only the illusion that we do… as with the concept of ‘time’ (but that’s another can of worms LOL!)…