I knew moving took effort, but…


I’m at the MIT media lab at the moment (on one of their laptops, in fact), and this morning I got a chance to try that galvanic skin response thing again. It showed something that I thought might be normal, but I was told was definitely not normal: Every time I voluntarily moved a body part, the graph started jumping upwards. I am told that most people can wave their arms around really heavily and not have it do that. All I had to do was move a leg a little bit or even wiggle my toes.

This did not happen during movements that were more automatic. Rocking did not cause the response to jump upwards. Neither did typing. But those were the only two things that didn’t, and that’s because neither of them were something I just decided on doing and then did, they were both run in the background.

I have known for a long time that my relationship to voluntary movement is not the same as my relationship to automatic movements, that there is in fact quite a large difference between the two, and that I process automatic movements as “background” but don’t process voluntary movements that way. And that most movements for me are not automatic, but require finding the body part and making it move around for me in a fairly laborious way.

In fact, I met Oliver Sacks at Human 2.0 the other day, and this is exactly what he and I talked about. I was explaining to him the lengths I go to to string together automatic movements in order to get through the day, and how difficult voluntary movements are in comparison, and so forth. He told me how much effort a friend of his with Parkinson’s expended in his head just planning everything out like that, and I told him my stork analogy, which he liked.

But we’d just been talking about this. And I didn’t know it was going to show up on any sort of objective measurement of the way I moved. In fact when the things started jumping up, the person was asking what was going on, and I said “It’s just from me moving.” And she said “But you moving shouldn’t make it go up like that, most people can wave their arms around frantically, even wave the hand the electrodes are attached to, and nothing like that happens.”

So apparently there is an objectively verifiable measure of the amount of effort I put into even very simple voluntary motions, and also of the fact that the motions of typing and rocking (and presumably other automatic movements that have not yet happened while I was attached to the sensors) are not doing that to me at all.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

10 responses »

  1. Wow. I’m very impressed. But, I hope you don’t end up being characterized badly in one of Oliver Sacks’ books.
    Were you at MIT when Estee was there? I hope you will share more about your experience at MIT.

  2. Interesting.

    I don’t think science knows half of what goes on between the brain and movement.

    I have recently been suffering from a flare up of twitching muscles and tremors, all over my body they will go off, my tongue has been doing it constantly for nearly two months now. It can be anything from a constant vibrating feeling beneath the skin, to muscles giving random twitches, some of them powerful enough to move a whole limb. The most annoying are in the face, it is like my muscles are being wound up like a clock spring and then release.

  3. This is off topic and I haven’t seen the show, but I was checking out the latest info on BBC America and came across this new show that someone might be interested.

    It’s called After Thomas and is about how the relationship between an austistic boy and his dog.

    “This is the blurb about the real family on which the show is based:
    Nuala and James Gardner – on whom Nicola and Rob Graham are based – live in a seaside town in Scotland with son Dale (Kyle), who is now 18, and their six-year-old daughter Amy. Both Dale and Amy were diagnosed with autism as toddlers, with Dale’s diagnosis being a long, arduous task at a time when autism was not widely understood. After Thomas is the story of Dale’s remarkable development through his bond with their pet dog Henry, named after his favorite engine in Thomas The Tank Engine but renamed Thomas in the film. He is unrecognizable from the boy he was during the period the film depicts – the confident, mature and friendly teenager who plays guitar in a band and works voluntarily with young Scouts is testament to the incredible impact Henry (Thomas) had on his life.”

    I’m wondering if anyone seen it? Is it worthwhile?

  4. I don’t know if this is similar, but I often find it impossible to let go of something I’m trying to throw. And often I’ll see something and want to react to it, but be unable to turn to look, or comment on it.

  5. Hey
    I’m sad I missed Human 2.0
    I had work
    as usual
    this is also why I missed that other thing the day before
    How was that?

  6. Interesting about the galvanic skin response! From what I know about it, “normal” physical movement should not cause a response. So I guess that means that what is “normal” for you is rocking and typing. The rocking seems easier to understand than the typing–you may well have been doing that all of your life. But the typing you must have consciously learned to do at some point, by basically your brain sending commands to your muscles in much the same manner that a brain (one would think) would command a leg to take a step forward… But for you, the brain-leg command causes a GSR response, but the brain-fingertip-typing command doesn’t. I bet you’re keeping those MIT types busy with this one!!!

  7. It’s easy for me to understand: Rocking when it happened was automatic, typing is also not conscious, most other movement at the time was conscious, therefore… etc. It’s all based on whether it’s an automatic movement pattern or not, I have very few of those.

  8. I was thinking more about the GSR thing last night and your typing being virtually “automatic,” and it occurred to me that, for most people, communication is an in-through-the-ears and out-through-the-mouth thing. But for at least some people on the autism spectrum, the more natural pathways may be in-through-the-eyes and out-through-the-fingertips. So in that respect, your typing may occur much as most people would use speaking. With me, speaking and writing both seem fairly natural (at this point-wasn’t always the case with speaking), although I’m alot more fluent writing. With my son, who has alot more autistic traits than I do, there is no doubt that the written word is his primary language, and the spoken word is like learning a second language for him. I’d be tempted to hook him up to a GSR to see if he has different responses to auditory and written input, but he’s not really to the age where he can give informed consent…

  9. Pingback: Left Brain/Right Brain » On media, neurodiversity and science

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