The Science Behind Clumsiness (And How You Can Cure It)

The Science Behind Clumsiness (And How You Can Cure It)

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This is what I think I look like
This is what I think I look like

We all have that friend (Maybe you’re that friend): The one who’s accident prone. Clumsy. It’s as though their own body is conspiring against them, failing at even the most basic tasks to injure themselves in awkward (yet hilarious) commonplace ways that no normal person would ever think of.

I know they exist- because I am most definitely that friend.

In fact, just scant weeks ago I proved it again: I rolled my ankle just walking down the sidewalk to work, muttering something under my breath about the weather. Lucky for me my ankle has been torn to shreds so many times that there’s really no further damage that can be done here. So it’s pretty much a “walk it off” scenario.

I’m that guy. I’m that friend that just always gets hurt doing mundane stuff like walking down the street or

This is what I actually look like
This is what I actually look like

even just sitting in a chair. I swear to God I actually managed to sprain my ankle once by just sitting in a chair (I still have no idea how I managed to do that), and I managed to cut my promising baseball career short when I went to the bathroom before a game- and (you guessed it) sprained my ankle.

All thumbs, two left feet, bull in a china shop, and then some: I am waging a neverending war against rolled ankles and stubbed toes that I think I will never be able to win. (My father even got me this t-shirt after my accident, which was both funny and a little sad at the same time):

clumsyshirt1
Pictured here: my father’s love for me

Which is why when someone told me that scientists had possibly discovered a “cure for clumsiness”, I was intrigued. Was that even possible?

What even causes clumsiness, anyway?

As it turns out, there are a few causes for clumsiness. Also I’d like to point out that what we’re talking about is different from actual motor control afflictions caused by known side effects of neurological disorders or accidents. These are truly devastating: many people with them, for example, can struggle with simple tasks like riding a bike, driving a car, or anything involving fine motor control.

What we’re talking about is simply that every-day clumsiness, that inability to avoid walking into a door, a chest of drawers, or a table. It happens to everyone, but it seems to happen to some way more often than others, enough so that “clumsy” as a sort of cosmic catch-all wasn’t really cutting it.

So some scientists at the University of Delaware decided to do a study on clumsiness and find out just what it is that makes us so happy to run into doors and roll our ankles for no reason at all. And they did this by using… wait for it… clumsy athletes.

(I should have signed up for this test).

So some scientists at the University of Delaware decided to do a study on clumsiness… And they did this by using… wait for it… clumsy athletes.

Dr. Charles Swanik’s team started their study on one simple idea: ACL injuries. ACL injuries are very common in sports- and many of them happen by accident, through missteps or awkward landings (these accidental ACLs are known as “non-contact” ACL injuries in sports injuries). Unlike our knee-bumping and ankle-rolling, ACL injuries are serious and often career-ending for promising athletes, and they wanted to know why some athletes got non-contact ACL injuries while others did not.

To do this, Swanik and his team gave a battery of neurocognitive tests to nearly 1,500 athletes across 18 universities and 10 intercollegiate sports before the seasons started. Things like visual memory, verbal memory, processing speed, and reaction time were all assessed, and the pre-assessment tests gave them baseline data in case any of the athletes were concussed.

After the season started, the athletes were tracked to see if any of them ended up sustaining non-contact ACL injuries. Some of them inevitably did- and the study matched those 80 athletes who sustained non-contact ACL injuries against a sample group of 80 who did not.

The researchers discovered that the 80 athletes who suffered non-contact ACL injuries performed significantly worse on almost all of the cognition tests than their non-injured counterparts, most importantly slower processing speed and reaction time.

The researchers discovered that the 80 athletes who suffered non-contact ACL injuries had slower processing speed and reaction time.

Now this one’s a real head-scratcher- especially because athletes generally perform far, far better in these neurocognitive tasks than their non-athletic peers. If performance in these neurocognitive tasks is a rough measure of clumsiness, how is it that an athlete could be as clumsy as a regular person? Shouldn’t every non-athletic person out there be rolling their ankles and tearing their ACLs on a daily basis?

Not exactly- turns out it’s a complicated business- though it’s not like it could have been simple after the word “neurocognitive” entered the mix. As it turns out, the performance in those tasks is related to distraction. In other words, your performance on the general cognitive tests isn’t necessarily an exact measure of your clumsiness- but rather your potential to be clumsy in any given moment.

What causes clumsiness, then is a moment of distraction- whether that moment is conscious or unconscious. This “narrowing of the attentional field” is kind of a neurocognitive disruption- it jars the flow between your muscles and your unconscious brain, causing errors in muscle coordination.

As it turns out, this isn’t set in stone. Swanik notes that due to how clumsiness presents and what causes it, you may be able to cure it by actually training your brain to simply not be clumsy. Mind exercises that help to minimize distraction and- believe it or not- relieve stress and anxiety can help to lessen the unconscious distractions in your brain and reduce the incidences of clumsiness.

due to how clumsiness presents and what causes it, you may be able to cure it by actually training your brain to simply not be clumsy.

Coaches have long known this anecdotally, coincidentally: many coaches will talk about “getting in the zone”. When a player is in the zone, nothing is distracting them: they are totally, completely, fully in the moment, focused entirely on the game and using their unconscious mind to coordinate their entire body even as they read the field.

Major professional teams have figured this out over the past twenty years or so, and big name coaches like George Mumford and Phil Jackson have brought mindfulness training to teams and seen huge performance gains because of it. 

Essentially, what Swanik’s study has discovered is that, in a strange way, walking down the street or going to the bathroom also kind of requires being in the zone to a certain degree: you’re not thinking about walking, you’re just doing it. But something distracts your brain, your unconscious mind, short-circuiting that link between your brain and your legs for a split second- and down you go.

In a strange way, walking down the street or going to the bathroom also kind of requires being in the zone to a certain degree

Well- as it turns out, you can never fully get rid of that possibility to short-circuit. But through mindfulness exercises and other brain-training programs, you can reduce the possibility of it happening and become just as non-accident-prone as the rest of the population.

Interestingly, maybe even more so- Swanik notes there is a possibility that some people might even be accident-resistant- meaning their body is less prone to malfunctioning than normal people. So maybe we can not only cure ourselves of our clumsiness- we can actually become resistant to it as well.

I really wish someone had told me this say, I don’t know, twenty years ago. But now- if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to be reading this for awhile.

 

 

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