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The master puppeteer: how the brain controls the body

Smiling, speaking, eating, walking – most of us take for granted the effortless ease with which we move. But behind even our simplest actions are processes of extraordinary complexity – processes that fascinate Cambridge Neuroscientist Professor Daniel Wolpert.

Speaking at a free public talk last Friday (19th March, 2010) at the Babbage Lecture Theatre, Cambridge Neuroscientist Professor Daniel Wolpert illustrated how little we know about how the brain controls the body and how much we still need to discover before we can build robots to match the movements of even a young child.

According to Professor Wolpert of the Department of Engineering: "Computers can now beat grand-masters at chess, but no computer can yet control a robot to manipulate a chess piece with the dexterity of a six-year-old child."

How the brain is able to learn to generate such skillful movement is one of the most intriguing questions in neuroscience and, Professor Wolpert believes, is most profound.

"Why do we have a brain?" he asks. "We have a brain for one reason only, and that's to produce adaptable and complex movement. Apart from sweating, movement is the only way we have of affecting the world around us."

"Sensory, memory and cognitive processes are all important but they're only important to drive or suppress future motor behaviour. There's no point laying down childhood memories or perceiving the colour of a rose if it doesn't have a potential impact on your motor output."

Daniel described his scientific experiments using tickle machines, automatic pea shooters, and pushing competitions to an enthralled audience of over 400 people ranging from children to adult medics.

This event was part of the 22nd Cambridge Neuroscience Seminar, Brain Awareness Week and the Cambridge Science Festival. Cambridge Science Festival is the UK's largest free annual science festival offering adults and children alike the chance to get involved in some of the University's cutting edge research.

The event was recorded by the Science Festival team and will be available to listen to again on this site shortly.

Article written by the University of Cambridge Press team.

Posted on 04/03/2010

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