Mind Over Matter — Regaining Movement

Andy Hab
2 min readSep 16, 2022
Photo 231825552 © Piksel | Dreamstime.com

This is the type of study and insight I like. Kind of amazingly simple, but effective. Though my headline may seem like promising the world, it isn’t. It simply focused on research into amputees and how they regain movement with artificial limbs of all sorts.

Simply a matter of training you may say. Kind of, but it is a painful and slow process because the body and brain are wired to work with the limbs you had and when they are gone it is a long frustrating process to regain functional movement.

And recent research by Szu-Ping Lee of the University of Nevada, is showing that attentional focus, an issue of the mind, is key to getting this right. This is grounded in sports kinesiology research particularly that of Professor Gabrielle Wulf.

The general approach is to focus on what muscles or joints need to coordinate to make a movement - this is similar to what happens in sport. For example, in golf you will be focused on getting the right movement to make your swing, or in baseball, or soccer, or whatever sport it is.

This is an internal focus whereby you are trying move specific muscles or limbs in complex coordination. The idea of course sounds logical: to get a specific movement you should coordinate your body internally.

However, external focus is different, it focuses only on the outcome. So, in the case of using prosthetics for amputees rather than focusing on the internalised processes you focus on the external: just move, just balance. For example, in golf when putting, you may focus on all internal cues, or, externally, simply focus on getting the ball in the hole.

Internal focus can lead to higher frustration with the prosthetic feeling like an additional lump and therefore inhibiting effective usage, whereas external focus focuses on outcomes and so integration of everything to achieve that outcome.

Lee’s paper, just out, focuses on rehabilitation of 21 patients and shows that most of the verbal instructions in therapy are focused on internal cues. On the other hand Wulff’s research shows that external cues are more effective. This is, by the way, also the specialists’ curse — physical therapists are specialists in how movements connect together so can fall into the trap of getting too internalised rather than just focusing on the much simpler external cue.

But for now, it is not really mind over matter but changing mind focus to move more effectively — we know that focusing on outcomes rather than internal cues is more effective.

This could be true in many areas in life.

Andy Hab

Sharing fascinating, fun, and important knowledge on the brain and human behaviour - most days. And masters track athlete - still going strong!