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Motor Schemata

If you recall from Chapter 4 (p.176), a gestalt was defined as a figure or form. The examples in chapter 4 involved visual forms, but motor gestalts also exist. A gestalt or schema is a pattern based on previous experience. It has an existence "other than its parts." In other words, it exists independently of any particular expression of it. Neisser (1967) suggests a simple experiment for demonstrating motor schemata:

What experiment, suggested by Neisser, shows transferability of schemata?

Ask someone to trace a letter of the alphabet on your back with his finger. You will have little difficulty in identifying the letter he marks out, although it is quite unlikely that such a pattern ever appeared on your back before. This indifference to locus, and even to modality, is a remarkable phenomenon. In many ways, it seems closely akin to the transferability of motor skills. Having learned to make letters with a pencil in your hand, you can also make them, perhaps a little awkwardly, with one held in your teeth or your toes or even the crook of your elbow. (p.53)

This shows that motor activity is based on something abstract-a schema-that does not depend on any particular set of muscles. It can be "transferred" either in the production phase (making letters with your toes) or in the comprehension phase (deciphering a letter traced on your back). The schema is an abstract pattern that can be expressed or detected in many ways.

Many different muscle groups might be used to express a particular movement, but this is not what defines the movement, unless you are interested in muscle physiology. The meaning of the movement is the overall form, the pattern, the gestalt. The "same movement" might be achieved in several ways, by different sets of muscles, once you learn how to make it. This is what Neisser refers to as the transferability of motor skills.

How can transferability of schemata aid the handicapped?

Transferability of schemata is important in overcoming handicaps. People who are born without arms use their feet in strikingly hand-like ways, driving and holding silverware with their feet, naturally and gracefully. The only thing missing is the ability to grasp large objects, enabled by the opposing thumb on a hand. Otherwise, video records of such individuals create a definite impression that one is watching a hand in action rather than a foot. Brain areas responsible for manual dexterity, normally used by the hands, are successfully re-assigned to the feet in such individuals, resulting in fluid and dexterous movements.

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