How the Brain Controls the Hands in Daily Life

Just how the brain coordinates complex actions was previously little understood

People are able to do many things at the same time – driving a car while having a conversation, for instance. Hand movements play an important role in this. Rümeysa Gündüz Can investigates how the brain controls such parallel activities during such movements along with her team colleagues at the Cluster of Excellence CITEC. Their  research addresses the neuro-cognitive mechanisms of hand movements in particular. The idea here is to use these findings to help develop better robots in the future. 

1. During the experiment, test subjects wear a cap that measures the electrical activity of their brain waves in the form of an EEG. Photo: CITEC/Bielefeld University Making a cup of coffee? It’s actually quite easy: grab some ground coffee and a filter, fill the machine with water, press a couple of buttons, then take a cup and pour the coffee in. This works so well that during the process you can also even have a conversation or think about something else. 

What seems to be so simple is not all that easy in reality. “Still today, it is not known what exactly happens in the brain when people perform actions with their hands while other cognitive processes are taking place in the brain at the same time,” says Rümeysa Gündüz Can. She works in the “Neurocognition and Action – Biomechanics” research group, which is affiliated with CITEC.

Hand movements are a big part of our daily live: “We reach for door handles or dishes, we operate computers and use cell phones,” explains the psychologist. “Even when we talk, we gesticulate.” The researchers are particularly interested in which neuro-cognitive mechanisms enable such movements to be flexibly adapted to the conditions and situation at hand.

Together with her colleagues, Rümeysa Gündüz Can investigates such processes of daily life, always focusing on the question of which neurocognitive mechanisms play a part in these actions. At the heart of their research is working memory, which stores information about certain actions and makes this information available for retrieval in the short-term.

“People can adjust their movements to the most varied of objects, depending on whether, for example, a cup is big or small,” says Gündüz Can. In addition to this, the environment is often complex: “When a person drives a car, he doesn’t just steer the vehicle. He also simultaneously pays attention to traffic signs and other cars on the road, or the navigation system.” Such complex environments require actions to be flexibly adapted to the respective situation. The researchers want to find out which neuro-cognitive mechanisms play a role in this.

So then why is it so important to understand these processes taking place in the brain? “We hope that our findings will contribute in the future to the development of better robots,” says the researcher. Up to this point, robots, unlike humans, have not really been able to react flexibly to changing requirements.

This also includes the development of brain-computer interfaces. So far, within the project basic research is addressed. It could still take some time until the findings are incorporated into robotics.

What does this research actually look like? Researchers work with different study participants who are given various tasks that are always a combination of a cognitive with motor task. Participants, for instance, have to memorize letters or remember the position of symbols on a screen while they move a ball to the right or left.

“Here, we aren’t just researching what happens in the brain when both tasks are being performed,” explains Gündüz Can. “We are also interested in what happens when the demands of the task change. What happens, for example, if the ball should now suddenly be moved to the right instead of the left?”

During these activities, brain waves are recorded as electroencephalography (EEG), which allows researchers to analyse, most importantly, the so-called event-related potentials. These are fluctuations in electrical activity that arise in reaction to cognitive or motor processes.

The researchers have already conducted three studies as part of the project. With these studies, they were able to show that it makes a difference for working memory as to whether the task performed during a movement is visual or verbal. They were also able to demonstrate that changing a movement calls upon the brain in a different way than a continued movement, since other neuro-cognitive processes were measured here.

The project belongs to the “small, high-risk projects” at the Cluster of Excellence CITEC. In these projects, researchers are working with particularly innovative and original topics where the outcome remains unseen. In addition to these, these are also four large-scale research projects and eight interdisciplinary projects running at CITEC. Researchers at the Graduate School also conduct research on individual projects. 

More information:
“Neurocognition and Action – Biomechanics” research group:

Rümeysa Gündüz Can, Bielefeld University
Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) 
“Neurocognition and Action – Biomechanics” Research Group
Telephone: 0521 106-5129

Author of the article: Maria Berentzen