The Poetics of Thought

Moving and Thinking

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 3, 2009

Living organisms move.  Some jump and run, others fly or slither, some crawl or burrow whilst some swim or hop, some walk on two legs, other canter on four.  Dogs and cats and horses and fish and other obviously moving beings are the stars of the ambulatory show, and in the slow motion world of geological and ecological time their get-up-and-go attracts a lot of attention.  But movement is not restricted to creatures with legs or wings and even the most sessile and sedentary lifeforms which seem to spend their entire time  passively waiting do so in relation to an active and changing environment.  Sunflowers turn their heads in lockstep with the motion of  the nearest star, pond algae floats to the surface where oxygen and light can be found, dandelion seeds drift in the wind, trees send out roots into the earth and moss grows by inches along the north side of those trees.

Movement brings change; some spots are warmer than others, some are more plentiful in resources, some are safer, and movement toward these spots brings a positive change in the likely survival of the organism making these moves.   Change of fortune through the change in location brought by movement may also be negative however; an organism blindly on the move may find itself in the waiting jaws of a predator, or in area of toxicity, or stranded far from its kin. Therefore, those rolling, tumbling, floating, drifting organisms which are able to somehow take control of this motion are more likely to survive and prosper than those which stumble randomly and fatalistically between famine and plenty, predator and prey.  Incessant movement  is part of the environmental conditions in which organisms operate and offers a set of possibilities  for evolutionary development.

Strategies for taking advantage of this ambient movement vary across the animal and vegetable kingdom.  Some organisms have settled for simple one-stop solutions such as phototropism, the facility of plants to grow toward the light.  Others have used slightly more complex mechano-chemical processes, such as the amoeba which has a cell wall that is sensitive to the presence of chemicals in the water around it that signal the proximity of a nutrient source, usually a smaller organism.  This sentivity is realised in the amoeba by the chemical composition of its cell wall changing such that it becomes less rigid and bulges in the direction of the food source.   Eventually the amoeba makes contact, surrounding and absorbing it.

The strategy for exploiting locomotion which is of most interest and relevance to us however is the one preferred by those organisms which we regard as truly mobile and which we might feel we have most in common (at least to the extent that we vegetarians try not to eat them).  These are creatures which have avoided putting all their evolutionary eggs in one basket and have gone for the building of a central nervous system.

The core principle of a central nervous system is that it connects faculties for collecting data from the outside world, call them ‘senses’, with mechanisms for movement and action in relation to that data.   So for example,  a  simple organisms may have sensors which can detect the presence of food at a particular place in its local environment, and it may also have some means of moving through that environment, a flagellum for example.  A central nervous system connecting these faculties coordinates the sense input with the motor output into an integrated sensorimotor system that allows the organism to move in the direction of the food source.

A creature with a slightly more complex central nervous system may have  additional features that those other organisms do not.  As well as being able to move and to respond to movement in a way which coordinates action with environment,  this central nervous system may be able to evaluate the changing environment and make predictions based on  ‘perceived’ differences in those values.   This structure of evaluation and perception effectively ‘represents’ salient parts of the environment as processes within the central nervous system.  This is broadly the view put forward by Pat Churchland in the book  ‘Neurophilosophy’ (1986) in which she points out that this ability to coordinate representing the world with movement in the world is not only tactically useful but is also an eminently scaleable solution to the problems of survival.  As she puts it “With increased complexity of behavioural repertoire comes increased capacity for representing the environment” (1986: 1).  As the variety and multiplicity of  sensorimotor activity increases, so the ability of the organism to not only exist within the world but also to model parts of that world within itself also increases.

Churchland goes on to  link this ability to coordinate sense and movement within a sensorimotor system with the development of brains and something like intelligence or thought.  She claims that

If you root yourself to the ground, you can afford to be stupid.  But if you move, you must have mechanisms for moving, and mechanisms to ensure that the movement is not utterly arbitrary and independent of what’s going on outside …. Neurons….are evolution’s solution to the problem of adaptive movement” (Churchland, 1986:13-14)

This is also the view put forward by Rodolfo Llinas in “i of the Vortex” (2002), a theory which he further develops into a possible account of the development of ‘the self’.   He sums up this theory in the memorable and apposite aphorism “that which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalisation of  movement“.  This is something which I may be returning to later.

On youtube at


Churchland, P. (1986) Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Llinás, Rodolfo R. (2001) I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.


3 Responses

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  1. Kaposvári Márk said, on September 4, 2009 at 8:22 am

    How refreshing to inhabit your pensively associative mindset again,
    The Flapping of Big Wing is quite a sobering argument, and I think important too,
    but let me reflect on Little Mind,

    in trying to account for “mind” one immediately finds oneself in deep pit,
    especially concerning the origins,
    so much so that, in my opinion, it also initiates the questioning of the terms
    in which certain concepts are employed
    maybe ’mind’ is the field of higher order cognitions that are transpersonal, maybe not,
    what exactly is ’mind’, and how is it differentiated from ’cognition’ or from ’consciousness’, is a precarious tightrope of concatenated notions one has to make careful balancing along, for sure,
    so, there’s clearly a sense of burden with words
    with words that are thoroughly fuzzy abstractions and are indeed capable of framing several distinct courses of argument respectively
    and there is almost an uncomfortable sense in which we feel we have to adjust ourselves to those terms in order to satisfactorily account for them, to justify their existence, that is,
    but what if the demarcations are way too gross,
    pending coherence, I think one should be granted the freedom to mould or realign these terms in a somewhat unwonted fashion,
    in any case,
    I think, in connection with ’Moving and Thinking’ there’ll still be the issue of cognitive quantum leap
    something more than merely the ‘common coding’ of action and perception,
    does higher order cognition really develop from there, from an ’internalized movement’?
    maybe besides internalization there is extension of movement too,
    that is a coordination of movement within a whole group of individuals
    communication establishes a shared and abstract environment of intentions and ensuing values, movement is thus extended in an abstract way that involves others and certain common ends
    but it is still an organization of physical engagement which means, that, in effect, there is a motor basis for higher forms of engagement with the environment, there is schematic mapping going on,
    but, I think, that is a sound argument for the ’how’ only,
    ’why’ is there this process of schematic mapping?
    that is an interesting question, I think, ‘why’?
    can it be because of the fortuitous need to realize a nominal logic (highly effective in furthering survival) that humans came upon somehow?
    which was strated maybe by using tools, or scaring away others by alarm calls in absence! of any danger 🙂 in other words, using sounds and signs in absence of the actual stimuli,
    symbols extend space beyond the actual
    departing from the cooperative principle: is it the same cause that caused life?
    which means that there was no real effort made, perhaps,
    indeed, If I think about it, I find it hard to understand how simian creatures started to invent symbols,
    isn’t there a need for consciousness or a rudimentary form of self-reflection for that to happen?
    but then again, there is a way out if we think of these creatures as more and more self-monitoring because of their shared environment of intentions (sorry for the repetitions)
    I think this evolutionary conundrum is the reason for Dennett’s adherence to the idea of replicating memes alongside the genes
    in his picture, all is a curious blend of learnt and hard-wired properties,
    but, long story short, locating the source of the process of cognitive development is crucial, I agree, in understanding the question of mind,
    maybe I don’t make any sense here, I hope I don’t squandor your time unnecessarily,
    and I apologize for the length, as far as commentary this is clearly out of bounds, sorry for that
    (in fact I wanted to write about a totally alternative and playfully childish thought of mine, but better save it for the next comment)


  2. Kaposvári Márk said, on September 4, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    have you come across this book?

    Marc Jeannerod: Motor Cognition (What Actions Tell to the Self)

  3. alex villa said, on December 3, 2009 at 6:01 am

    A lot of people telling me how their anxiety
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    Stress or Anxiety AND DEPRESSION can often feel like a thick fog has surrounded
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    By getting control of what makes your heart happy and taking
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