Understanding and Synergy: A Single Concept at Different Levels of Analysis?

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Biological systems differ from the inanimate world in their behaviors ranging from simple movements to coordinated purposeful actions by large groups of muscles, to perception of the world based on signals of different modalities, to cognitive acts, and to the role of self-imposed constraints such as laws of ethics. Respectively, depending on the behavior of interest, studies of biological objects based on laws of nature (physics) have to deal with different salient sets of variables and parameters. Understanding is a high-level concept, and its analysis has been linked to other high-level concepts such as “mental model” and “meaning”. Attempts to analyze understanding based on laws of nature are an example of the top-down approach. Studies of the neural control of movements represent an opposite, bottom-up approach, which starts at the interface with classical physics of the inanimate world and operates with traditional concepts such as forces, coordinates, etc. There are common features shared by the two approaches. In particular, both assume organizations of large groups of elements into task-specific groups, which can be described with only a handful of salient variables. Both assume optimality criteria that allow the emergence of families of solutions to typical tasks. Both assume predictive processes reflected in anticipatory adjustments to actions (motor and non-motor). Both recognize the importance of generating dynamically stable solutions. The recent progress in studies of the neural control of movements has led to a theory of hierarchical control with spatial referent coordinates for the effectors. This theory, in combination with the uncontrolled manifold hypothesis, allows quantifying the stability of actions with respect to salient variables. This approach has been used in the analysis of motor learning, changes in movements with typical and atypical development and with aging, and impaired actions by patients with various neurological disorders. It has been developed to address issues of kinesthetic perception. There seems to be hope that the two counter-directional approaches will meet and result in a single theoretical scheme encompassing biological phenomena from figuring out the best next move in a chess position to activating motor units appropriate for implementing that move on the chessboard.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number735406
JournalFrontiers in Systems Neuroscience
StatePublished - Nov 18 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuroscience (miscellaneous)
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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