DIY Neuro-Motor Asymmetry Experiments

Owing to an overuse injury that has curtailed my running, I find myself gravitating toward my other main avocation, the drums, in order to maintain my sanity. These two things are at opposite ends of the spectrum: one is all about fitness, the other, skill. In the past couple of weeks I've been performing a little experiment on myself. I'd like to invite other Sciblings and readers to consider joining in with their own self-experimenting and report back their initial findings and then again weeks or months down the road. This could be interesting.

It all has to do with the body asymmetry of fine motor motion. That is, can your right side do what your left can, particularly when it comes to coordinated patterns? If not, what is the experience of trying to get them to match and how long does it take? For that matter, does an increase in proficiency in one task produce gains in others? Allow me to explain. Many musical instruments are constructed and played in an asymmetrical manner. A standard right-handed guitar, for example, requires fretting with the left hand and picking with the right. Some are more symmetric than others. For example, a piano does not demand entirely different functions of the hands like the guitar, yet, something as simple as an ascending scale requires different finger motions between the left and right hands (basically mirror image, so a descending scale would sort of flip motions between the hands). If you don't play an instrument, don't worry; I've got some non-music things for you to consider, so hang in there.

My instrument of choice is the drum kit. This is usually very asymmetrical. More than most instruments, drum kits are highly individual in layout. For a typical right hander though, the right foot controls the bass (or kick) drum and the left foot controls the hi-hat pedal (a pair of cymbals that close together when you depress the pedal). The snare drum is center, between the legs. Tom-toms are usually arranged with a small unit directly in front or slightly to the left, and increasing in diameter as they move to the right (completely backwards to a piano or keyboard percussion like a marimba, which makes me crazy). The ride cymbal is usually to the right with the hi-hat to the left. Crash cymbals (for accents) are arranged in the remaining spaces. There many, many variations such as dual kick drums and hi-hats, multiple sets of toms, etc., but they all tend to be very asymmetrical. Partly this is due to the physical size of the drums themselves (a small tom is 6" while a large floor tom is 18"), and partly it's due to the history of the instrument. There are some notable exceptions to this asymmetry, Bill Bruford (formerly of Yes and King Crimson) being a prime example. (The link shows layouts of all of Bill's kits from the late 60's on, so it's a good visual to accompany the descriptions above.)

I play electronic drums and that means that no matter the pitch or sound, the "drum" is always the same size (it's a rubber pad that sends a trigger signal to a sampled drum "brain" which produces the appropriate sounds). Because of this, I can arrange my kit in any manner I choose without worrying about size versus pitch constraints. So, I have a very odd kit. It is highly symmetrical. My hi-hat pad is directly in front of my snare pad. There are three tom pads on either side and they are tuned in descending fashion from the center out. I did this initially because I get to avoid the standard "hi hat crossover" motion. Normally, the right hand will play a fixed pattern on the hi-hat which places the right arm in front of the body. The left hand typically plays the snare, but with the right arm in front, it minimizes where the left hand can go. By placing the hi-hat in the center, greater access is achieved and both hands can reach the hi-hat with equal ease. Because it's electronic instead of mechanical, the hi-hat pedal is completely decoupled from the hi-hat pad so it doesn't have to be directly underneath.

I've had my kit set up like this for some time now and I have noticed that there are some movements I can make clockwise that are not so easy counter-clockwise. I didn't think too much of this at first, but recently, other asymmetries have started to jump out at me. You see, the standard kit almost requires certain patterns of movement so you never really have to do the exact mirror image. When you set things up to do the reverse, suddenly, you become Mr. Spastic. It's almost like taking a time trip backwards to when you first picked up the instrument.

I'll talk a bit more specifically about my experiences in another installment, but to get things rolling, try the following:

1. If you're a musician, try playing your instrument in a mirror image manner. For example, some electronic keyboards allow you to reset key assignments, so try flipping the high keys to the left and the low keys to the right, as if you were reaching over the keyboard from the back. If you're a guitarist, try restringing it upside-down leftie (fretting with the normal picking hand). You get the idea.

2. If you don't play an instrument, try printing with your non-dominant hand, or (this can be very wacky) try printing with your dominant hand using a reverse motion with mirror image letters. I suggest printing as it will be easier to assess. I tried this about twenty years ago, and after several weeks of practice, some strange things began to happen.

No matter what activity you choose, practice it each day and note your progress. It may be helpful to alternate the activity while practicing (i.e., doing it the normal way and then the mirror way, repeatedly).

Drummers are in a unique position here as they tend to think of each limb as independent (or at least they try to; ask any beginning drummer about their "independence" if you want to hear some swearing). Thus, if you're a drummer, you can try switching patterns top to bottom as well as side-to-side (like playing a paradiddle with your feet). Don't know what a paradiddle is? Stay tuned. You will, and it's something all of you non-drummers can try.

More like this

I'm not a musician. I am a carpenter. Instead of playing musical instruments I play tools. Most tools require two hands, one providing force and the other guidance. Where a pianist's right hand directs the melody while her left provides the guiding chords, my right hand will push or pull on a tool while my left hand will provide a smaller, but in its subtlety decisive, force. On occasion it is necessary to reverse my grip, usually due to constraints in working space and convenience of access. When this happens I can usually cope only with much concentration, a deliberately step by step approach, much curling of lip and twisting of tongue, with only the least bit of profanity. I can think of a test or two. One involves a wood chisel, the other a power saw.

I did do a somewhat related experiment this week, restoring damaged base and door moldings. I spent three days working within six inches of the floor, laying on my side and using tools in unfamiliar attitudes. When I examine the results of my work (look at it) I can plainly see that the last repair of eight is better than the first. Inasmuch as I had to use my tools in awkward and unusual orientation (as opposed to the work nicely supported on a bench of comfortable height) and as I had to change the way I applied force and control, and that the results were better with repetition, and that the whole damn experience was at once damned uncomfortable and tedious, I'd submit that new behaviors can be learned. It's just damned uncomfortable and tedious. Not to mention potentially profitable in some similar situation in the future.

The upshot is that I have new skills that I possessed only nascently a week ago, the repair is only visible upon close inspection, the customer is happy, my boss is happy and I have been paid.

I'll be thinking of this in terms of my job and hope to have more for you soon. You've come up with a great idea to encourage "sideways thinking" about the common and routine things that we do.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 09 Feb 2007 #permalink

As a post script I just listened to Carlos Santana and Jimmie Hendrix and I thought that a reasonable and "do it at home" experiment would be to try to play air guitar backwards.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 09 Feb 2007 #permalink

One has to wonder if this project of Jim's is possibly dangerous! ;D

Reversing the location of learning changes the brain's architecture of limb layout. The repetition needed to cause this to happen, may likely cause the "unmemorization" of previous material.

One has only to look at the generally retarded mental capacities of the average drummer to see the danger of Jim's suggested project. ;D

Now, as a drummer myself, I have shied away from any new independence-building exercises. I don't want to be a better drummer if it means that my eyes go bad, or my genitals explode.

I have a hard enough time not falling of my drummer's chair during the tricky parts as it is.

By Gingerbaker (not verified) on 10 Feb 2007 #permalink

You brought up an interesting take on this and I am happy that my own experiments do not involve the possible loss of appendages due to rapidly rotating metal things. Regarding sideways thinking of routine things, my tendency to look for symmetry has invaded such elements of my life as the lacing of shoes, the threading of belts in pants, and other oddities. I imagine that most people never think of putting a belt on "backwards", and the first time you do it, it's a little weird.

You bring up an interesting point about "unmemorization". As part of my experiments, I started working on "travelling paradiddles" around the kit, and something very strange happened; something similar to what happened 20+ years ago when I was experimenting with mirror writing. I'll write about it in part 2. Regarding the "retarded mental capacities of the average drummer", we don't know if that's cause or effect. Does the added rewiring required for drumming make you dumb, or are dumb people attracted to the drums? Reminds me of the old joke: "Question: What do you call the guy who hangs around with all of the musicians in the band? Answer: The drummer."

Reversing the location of learning changes the brain's architecture of limb layout. The repetition needed to cause this to happen, may likely cause the "unmemorization" of previous material.

During high school I trained myself to write left-handed (I originally learned to write right-handed). Now I know why I got such terrible grades. (It couldn't have been the hand-writing ... inside of a week, my left-hand writing was much more readable, although much slower.)

Thanks for the response, Jim, and rest assured that I am missing only some negligible chunks. I have all my digits though a couple have some annoying scar tissue.

I don't think that learning a new method diminishes an old method unless the new one is demonstrably better. For clarity observe the coming fate of incandescent light bulbs. Or contrast the state of the hammer as built and used 25000 years ago to those of today. They are obviously the same in their intended use but the genesis shows some way cool tweaking; like most everything else.

Learning a new thing, or learning a new way to do an old thing, would seem to be identical to learning in its original form. For instance, when I learned to use the associative principle in arithmetic I didn't forget how to multiply. What I did learn was to trust my earlier understanding and to use it like a tool. Lefty or righty it works - provided that one understand the ends and the means. Tool use.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 10 Feb 2007 #permalink

True, but neuro-motor response is not necessarily the same as the refinement of tool design or mastering a new intellectual concept or process. Part two hints at some pluses and minuses that I have experienced, although I suspect that the minuses tend to be short term and can be corrected for the most part.

Watch me read part two nowl

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 10 Feb 2007 #permalink