Helping Everyone Move Better

Interview with Professor Cathy Craig

13.7.2012 | Psychologist Cathy Craig studies how the brain processes sensory information and uses it to inform movement, with the goal of helping elderly individuals, patients with neurological disorders, and athletes improve their motor control. Craig is professor in perception and action psychology at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
AcademiaNet: Your research looks at how the brain uses sensory information to control movement. What are the key factors in how the brain processes and acts on this sensory information?

Cathy Craig
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Cathy Craig
Prof. Cathy Craig: The approach that we take is what we call the "ecological approach". This has nothing to do with environmental protection - this approach from perceptual psychology stresses the relation between a person and its environment, and between perception and action; it is also called the direct perception approach. So the brain doesn't have to make complex computations about sensory information, instead it suggests that there's one to one mapping between the way the information changes in the environment and how the brain picks up on that.

What we're interested in understanding is how the brain responds to the temporal pattern of information that you can tune into through your senses. One part of our work is understanding what information the brain can use to guide or regulate movement. We've done some work in sport with curved free kicks in football to understand what the bend on the ball means for the goalkeeper. Can they anticipate or pick up information about the bend in the ball's trajectory that will allow them to anticipate where the ball is going to go? What we've shown is that perception does indeed influence action: Basically the pattern and the timing of the information is what's really important. And even professional goalies tend to react to the ball's original trajectory, thus missing the ball. So courved free-kicks are indeed an important goal opportunity.

You've also looked at manipulating this sensory input to help people improve how they coordinate their movements. How does this research work?

How we use our research to train movement or improve movement has primarily been in health related contexts. One of the things we've been doing is using the Nintendo Wii balance board, interfacing it with a normal PC computer, and creating our own games that involve patterns of light and sound. We're using the sensory information presented in the game to encourage people to control their movements better, in particular their balance. What we find in older adults is they have great fun and take pleasure from playing these games – they're not aware that we're manipulating the sensory information.
Virtual football game
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(© Queen's University Belfast)

Virtual football game | In this setting, researchers can control the sensory input and measure the reaction. Increasingly, they use headsets with built-in screens.

Are there any applications in non-health-related contexts?

One large part of our work has been about trying to understand what the elite athlete does differently from the novice. We use what we call immersive interactive virtual reality to manipulate the sensory information received by the study participant. The participant puts on a headset, which is like a bicycle helmet, and there are two screens within this headset, so if they turn to look to their left what they see on the little screens is what they would see on the left hand side of the virtual environment.

We can then control what the subject is seeing and measure how they move as a function of the information we present to them inside the headset. What we have found is that elite goalkeepers have developed strategies to deal better with spin on the football, so they wait that little bit longer before they make a move, which means they don't over commit or make too many errors in the wrong direction. We can then train novices to behave more like experts in that sort of scenario.

Your career started out in Edinburgh with your MA and PhD but after that you moved to France to conduct research. Why did you make the decision to go to France?

My PhD supervisor was trying to push me to go to the United States but I really didn't want to because at conferences I would meet other Europeans and I felt that I had more in common maybe with them. Also, I got the feeling that in the UK especially there was more of a bias towards North America, maybe at the cost of neglecting some excellent research that I found was happening in Europe.

I moved to the Movement and Perception lab at the Faculty of Sport Sciences at the University of Aix-Marseille-2 under Professor Reinoud Bootsma in a post called an ATER, which is an assistant lecturer role. That was a fantastic opportunity and I really enjoyed being in a different culture. Also, research is organised differently there, I think it's more provocative, I think there's more discussion. I really enjoyed the experience of working alongside people in different areas, very different to the area I would be in, and approaching the same problem from a different angle.

But I suppose the thing I found very disappointing there was nobody was doing any research on sport! I couldn't believe I was in a sports science faculty and everyone seemed to think that sport wasn't the important thing to be doing, that they should be doing some kind of abstract tasks in a lab. That's when I discovered the power of virtual reality technology because I could really see the potential in being able to simulate more life like experiences.

Is it really important to you that your research has applications that are relevant to society?

Yes. And I think it should be every researcher's priority. I do agree that we need fundamental research but we need to be able to meld the two together. For me the litmus test of any theory is "can you apply it to real life", that's really the way I work and the way I look at things. I suppose that's what we try to do, ask questions, but really it is the information that's fundamental, the modelling of information variables. The application is "so OK, how can we use this to help people maybe who have got health problems or to allow people to attain better performance in sport?"

Dear Prof. Craig, thank you very much for this interview.

Interview: Helen Jaques   (© AcademiaNet)

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