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Muscular Or Motor Control

( Originally Published 1899 )

THE nerves controlling the voluntary muscles of the body lie everywhere in pairs, one for the right and one for the left side. Branching off from the spinal cord, they divide and subdivide into delicate filaments that reach even the minutest muscles of the body. They parallel the sensory nerves, which carry information of peripheral disturbance to the brain. Through them the movements of all the organs are directed. As ac-curate information concerning the stimuli that arouse sensation is dependent upon the healthy and prompt action of the sensor or afferent nerves, so intelligent and effective motor control is de-pendent upon similar conditions in the motor or efferent nerves. The earlier movements of the child are due almost entirely to reflex action, many of them serving useful ends in its physical economy. Their automatic nature is easily shown when the child has reached the stage of development in which it begins to direct the same movements by its own will, for much of the inborn skill, having served its purpose, then suddenly disappears, and control is regained only by intelligent and patient practice.

Whatever may be the mystery of connection between the mind and the nervous system, this much is clear, that the fact of such a connection can not be denied. It is also clear that this wonderful mechanism of the human frame becomes responsive to the demands of the will only through education and training. Purely reflex impulses may throw the head and arms and body and legs about in a promiscuous way, satisfying the physical cravings for activity, but the putting of a hand or a foot in a certain chosen spot is a very different thing. " Making both ends meet " that is, grasping the toes for the first time is a great feat in motor control. The movements of the facial muscles in taking food or crying or smiling have little of the purely voluntary element in them until they are used for a purpose more or less definitely outlining in the mind of the child. When any movement comes clearly into the consciousness of the child as of his own origination and direction, he has leaped beyond the bonds of the mere animal and already entered into the realms of spiritual existence; he is already building ideals and realizing them; the wisest man on the earth can do no more. By these movements and their accompanying sensations he gradually differentiates himself from the outside world, and discovers himself and it as having mutually independent existences: the one moving at his will, the other fixed and stable.

For lack of space we can not tarry over the multitude of interesting experiments in motor control which the child makes in the first months of his life, though they would throw much light upon the problem later on. A knowledge of the details of the structure of muscles in general and of their functions is necessary to its proper apprehension, and it might be well to refresh the memory a little before proceeding further. The motive power originating all muscular movement is physical impulse, which has been well defined as felt pressure to activity. That "felt pressure" may arise wholly from the accumulation of surplus nervous or muscular energy which seeks to discharge itself in exercise of some kind or as a reflex movement in response to some external stimulus, or it may arise from the presence of some thought, some idea, in the mind which awakens a mental impulse to its realization. This mental impulse in some magic way arouses a physical impulse, and the condition for action is at once attained.

The purely physical origin of the impulse is, of course, more marked in the growing child than later in life. His whole organism is set up as with compressed springs. A full-grown, vigorous man is forced into the little space the child now occupies, and he must expand to that man's stature and that man's adroitness and skill. For that pur-, pose he eats and sleeps and exercises; for it he crams every little cell in his body with nourishment until it is alive with energy. No wonder he rolls and runs and jumps and tumbles and pulls and pushes and twists from the moment he opens his eyes in the morning until he is put to bed at night. He can not help it. He ought not to help it. It is natural with him. That is the way he grows. He is kneading himself as a woman kneads dough, and for practically the same purpose. That which he eats must be mixed through and through him, losing itself in him and becoming a part of him. The excellence of both bread and child depends upon the thoroughness of the kneading. The energy with which the child is constantly charging thus fulfills its mission.

Study the children in your circle and jot down your conclusions concerning the physical and mental condition of those whose impulses to exercise are freely indulged and of those who are inclined to exercise but little.

Whether the impulse is of physical or mental origin, its direction and control belong to the intellect. Whether the child is crawling or rolling or walking or reaching out his hands as he has something more or less clearly in mind for which he is trying to reach or which he is trying to do, he calls certain muscles into action which he thinks will accomplish that end. The knowledge of the muscles to use and the skill to control them come through a long course of experimentation. At his first voluntary efforts to reach out to something the child bends over with his whole body, instead of extending his hand alone, often losing his balance and doubling up in a helpless heap. As he tries to crawl, the same thing occurs. In both cases certain instinctive impulses to protection throw out the arms and hands and legs and feet, one or all, to little practical purpose at the time it may be, but revealing at least vaguely to the child their function and use. A few such experiences add sufficiently to the child's knowledge to start him to experimenting with them, and he soon learns how to move them independently of each other, and also how to move them together at his will. Spend a short time each day for a few weeks with a little child, and see how he learns to suppress certain superfluous and obstructive movements and to develop others that serve his purpose. Watch him as he takes hold of an object, as a pencil, as he tries to lift a spoonful of food to his mouth, as he balances himself by his chair and essays to walk, as he attempts to pronounce a word he hears you speak, as he is doing the multitude of little things which his ever-changing moods suggest to him. Compare his movements with those of other children of similar age, and, if possible, find the reason for the differences you may discover.

Your observations will show you that some children are more active than others; that some of the sluggish ones move with great precision, while some of the active ones are always blundering; that some use three or four times as much energy in doing certain things as others; that some seem to lose all control of their muscles at times, while others are never disconcerted; that the movements of the whole arm or the whole leg are gradually broken up into movements of the forearm, the hand, the fingers, the lower leg, the foot, the toes, just as the movements of the whole body were broken up into those of its larger parts; that with practice the movement in all cases be comes more and more definite; that less and less stimulus is required to incite activities as control becomes more complete; that the clearer the idea in the mind of the child of what he wishes to do, the more readily he accomplishes it; that with each repetition a movement is the more easily reproduced, and soon becomes almost automatic; and that emotional and physical control grow approximately together. For the purpose of verifying these and discovering additional facts, ask the children to thread a needle, draw a straight line, walk a chalk line on the floor, touch the thumb with one finger, and then move the other fingers on the same hand independently, etc.

You never had any doubt that muscular control is to be learned by every child, but ere' you have half finished the experiments suggested you have probably discovered that muscular control may be greatly aided by education, and also that there is much to learn about conducting the operation. Not only is the healthy and symmetrical development of the child dependent upon it, but his ability to execute the varied and delicate movements demanded in the attainment of skill in all physical activity. Grace in standing or sitting or walking is attained only by muscular control in accordance with ideal standards. It comes in many cases slowly and laboriously, but early and intelligent instruction will greatly facilitate its acquirement. For details consult some good authority on physical exercises for children. This is a good place, however, to say that, no forcing process will avail. Nature never gets in a hurry.

We can furnish conditions; she does the rest. Learn a lesson from the fields. Some of the most graceful animals in them were the most ungainly in their infancy. Physical constitution must affect progress in physical control, and the attempt so often made to compel uniformity in children's movements can but result in distortion and mediocrity. It is well known that many children are easy and natural in their movements until some fatal day self-consciousness suddenly develops, and the consequent embarrassment sadly interferes with self-control. A word in sport, unfriendly criticism, consciousness of inferiority or superiority, slight physical indisposition, failure in something attempted, lack of confidence in self, etc., are among the causes producing it. I once knew a child who, because of a mishap in his first effort to walk, did not attempt it again for nearly a year. Another alarmed her parents be-cause after an evident effort to talk at the usual time she remained dumb until nearly three years of age. Imagine their relief when one day she broke out like a magpie, astounding them all by the accuracy and fluency of her utterances! In this educative process, as in every other, sympathy and encouragement are two essentials.

When you reflect that gesture, speech, drawing, writing, vision, facial expression, and all manual dexterity, in addition to the movements already mentioned, depend upon perfect muscular control, its relation to the art and the artisan side of life becomes clear enough. Too often physical control means simply suppression of impulses.

This is the negative side only. Its positive and practical side is seen in every effort which man makes to accomplish work, whether in the way of moving a part or all of himself or of shaping and molding something external to himself. There are a hundred and fifty thousand words in the English language alone, and yet in sound they are easily distinguished. As each one of them can be pronounced only by making its characteristic combination of muscular movements in the vocal organs, the question of motor control as related to language rises at once to a dignity scarcely less than that of thought control itself. That the child by a few years' experimenting can place these muscles, under such control as to enable him to make instantly the combination necessary to pro-duce a sound he has just heard is cause for perpetual wonder. He learns much by pure imitation, but only the larger muscular movements in speech can be learned that way. All the fine shades of tone and volume and accent can be produced only as he learns by experimentation the corresponding shades of muscular movement.

Sound utterance calls at once into requisition the delicate muscles of the vocal cords, the muscles controlling the form of the mouth and the movements of the lips and the muscles regulating respiration. Vocal expression in speaking, reading, and singing is dependent upon the ease and skill with which all of these muscles are con-trolled. The sensitiveness and delicacy of their response is in proportion to the fineness and mobility of their structure. Both are attained by patient and intelligent cultivation. By it the ear pictures of certain sounds become so intimately associated with their counterparts, the muscular pictures, that the presence of the former in the mind instantly and without effort accurately calls back the latter. Successful voice culture always has this for its end. Faulty articulation, stammering, lisping, lack of force, unpleasant quality, wrong pitch, etc., are generally due to inability to control properly the muscles named. The remedy has already been named, but it must be re-membered that the fault may lie in the ear picture and not in the muscular picture. My friend, Professor Jones, tells me that he frequently has pupils in his classes who persist in singing flat or sharp, and that he requests them not to sing at all until they can sing the correct note. Some-times they are silent for several days, and all at once they sing in perfect accord with the others. It is probable that during the interim they have been more or less unconsciously trying to produce the corresponding muscular movement as they have been correcting the ear picture of the sound. In reading and in singing by note, the eye picture and the muscular picture must be equally suggestive and interchangeable. The sight of the word or note instantly sets the machinery in motion to utter it. Long practice is just as necessary here as in the other case. This is the explanation of the inability of some people to sing by note who readily sing " by ear." The explanation is scientifically correct, for they have learned to sing by fitting their muscular movements to the ear and not to the eye picture. It is for the same reason that one person plays on the violin or other musical instrument by ear or by eye (note) only; the muscles of the hand and arm are trained to respond to but one class of mental pictures, and are helpless in the presence of the other.

Muscular control easily falls into grooves, and into very narrow grooves, too. The good penman may not be able to do anything in drawing. He may write vertically with dispatch and elegance, but make a poor scrawl in " natural slant." A good artist may be a poor penman. A fluent speaker of the German language may never succeed in pronouncing an English word correctly. One may be able to play beautifully on the piano, and yet scarcely play Old Hundred on the organ so that it will be recognized.

All physical education includes muscular control. To secure the best results for the children, the exercises should be both of a class and of an individual character; the former to meet general, the latter, individual needs. Lack of ability to perform certain movements may be due to weakness as well as to lack of control. Certain muscles may be behind their companions in development, and hence may need special cultivation.

It is not within the province of our plan to enter into details concerning motor control in the various arts, however interesting the subject might be. Manual training embraces penmanship, drawing, modeling, the use of tools in general, each leading up to useful and gainful occupations, requiring the ready command of all the voluntary muscles, particularly those of the arms and fingers. As success in life is to be so largely dependent upon the deftness and endurance of arms and fingers, every child is entitled to the education that insures both. Dexterity in any of the arts is best attained by anticipating them in child-hood and youth, when the whole organism is awaiting direction, and when it easily responds to treatment. In later life form and movement are fixed, changes being made with difficulty; hence training makes little progress, and rare skill seldom results. It is on this account that motor control assumes such importance in childhood; for this reason that methods of teaching the subjects mentioned so vitally affect the future as well as the present well-being of the child. Movement and muscular control are the only things worth striving for in his earlier years; the finished product will come in its proper time. All exercises in penmanship and drawing which cramp the fingers or interfere with the free movement of the muscles do more harm than good. In every case the larger and freer movements should come first, the finer and the more restricted later. This is the law of all control. That children in the lower grades write well is not necessarily a compliment to the teacher. I have seen several children who were beautiful penmen at eight or ten years of age, and yet at twelve or fourteen were such scrawlers that they could hardly read their own writing. Finger exercises on the piano, the organ, the typewriter, and other instruments must be in accord with the laws governing the development of physical control, as many poor children have learned to their sorrow and at great expense of time and labor.

We have said that by experience the proper muscular movements for doing certain things be-come pictured in the mind the same as pictures furnished by the eye and the ear, and that they become so intimately associated with one or both of the latter that they mutually suggest each other. The cause of this suggestion is found in the fact that the association has made them parts of the same experience, the same whole, the same picture. At first, the intellect and will are required to direct the movement, but with repetition attention becomes less and less necessary, and both are left free to think and plan while the movement goes on to completion. As an illustration, I am now writing the words in this sentence; as I start to write each one of them, I am thinking about what word to write next, but the muscular movement necessary to write each continues " of its own accord " until the word is finished. So complete has become the alliance that the self in thought and the self in action are one and the same thing. This is the ideal in all motor training, particularly on the art and the artisan side. It is a mistake to suppose that in learning to write words the eye picture is the only one that must be clearly defined. The muscular picture by which each is written is just as important, and when the child has made it as fully a part of him-self as the eye picture he is in no danger. of misspelling it; hence the importance of accuracy and rapidity on the part of the children as they learn to write words.

That muscular control is dependent upon the condition of the nervous system is easily seen in any child; indeed, the organization of the muscular system carries with it the organization of the nervous system also. Every vital function, every activity of the body is controlled and regulated by it. Destroy the nerves, and the life of the tissue is destroyed also. Muscular control implies brain control as well. To secure the happiest results physical culture, contrary to the method so generally in vogue, should begin at the nerve centers and work outward. With intelligent exercise nerves grow in responsiveness as well as in sensitiveness and delicacy. But as the nervous system is the immediate servant of the mind, the nerve centers are best reached through it. Dr. C. W. Emerson says: " Certain mental states pro-duce definite effects upon the vocal organs. In-duce such states of mind as shall produce the de-sired effect in vocal expression. The mental states operate directly through the cranial nerves upon the vocal organs, and instantaneously change their activity."

Feelings and will as related to motor control will be considered in the next two chapters. For the relation of play, see the chapter on that subject.

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