What is motor behavior?

Motor behavior is the action that results in human movements and comprises motor learning, control, and development. It constitutes all movements, from involuntary to voluntary actions in every part of the human body that starts from head to toe. Every movement depends on generating, controlling, and managing the forces required for the muscles and biomechanics.

What are the objectives of motor behavior?

  • The first objective of motor behavior is to understand how skills are learned, developed, and controlled in limbs (hands and legs).
  • It is mainly focused on motor learning, motor control, and motor development.
  • It should be understood how motor skills are controlled and how movements are associated with the muscle structure, bone joints, and the regulation of movements.
A rectangular flow chart shows the sub-disciplines of motor behavior with data connected to each other in a parallel direction and labeled as ‘motor learning’, ‘motor control’, and ‘motor development’, respectively.
Sub-disciplines of motor behavior

Motor behaviorists

Motor behaviorists are the professionals who understand how motor skills are learned and learn about the feedback, practice, and individual differences of motor skills. They also understand how motor skills change across the lifespan of a person.

History of motor behavior

The history of three motor behavior sub-disciplines (motor learning, control, and development) is quite long, but the reasons for research in these three areas have changed adequately.

  1. In the late 1800s and 1900s, many researchers worked on motor behaviors to learn about motor skills rather than using the term to understand cognition (mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding the action through experience or senses).
  2. Between 1939 and 1945 was an active period for research on motor skills because military professionals used the term ‘motor skills’ actively for selecting and choosing military pilots.
  3. Motor skills had an early development in the field of psychology.
  4. During the 1940s and 1960s, the works of Ruth Glassow, Anna Espenshade, and Larry Rarick provided an outline of motor development.
  5. In the 1960s, Franklin Henry’s memory drum theory gave rise to sub-disciplines of motor behavior.
  6. In the 1970s, the sub-disciplinary concepts of motor behavior were developed completely.

Motor skills

Motor skills are referred to as the body’s ability to manage the process of movements. A person’s brain, muscles, and nervous system play vital roles in regulating and executing motor skills. In simple terms, motor skills are performed or carried out by humans unconsciously. The motor functions of people are determined based on their employed motor skills.

An image shows the flowchart representation of the types and development of motor skills with data connected in a parallel direction and is categorized as ‘types of motor skills’, ’development’, and ‘brain structures’.The types of motor skills are further categorized as:Gross motor skills 1) Oculomotor skills. Examples: Running, jumping, sliding.  2) Object-control skills. Examples: Throwing, catching, kicking.Fine motor skillsSmaller movements with the wrist, hands, fingers, feet, and toesThe development of motor skills is further categorized as:Aspects of development 1) Qualitative 2) Sequential 3) Cumulative 4) Directional 5) Multifactorial 6) IndividualComponents of development1) Growth 2) Maturation 3) Expansion 4) AdaptationThe brain structures are further categorized as:1) Primary motor cortex2) Supplemental motor area 3) Premotor cortex
Motor skills

Types of motor skills

Motor skills are broadly grouped as gross motor skills and fine motor skills.

Gross motor skills

  • These skills need the usage of large muscle groups to perform numerous tasks.
  • This skill is usually developed in the early stage of infancy.
  • The execution of this skill remains the same, even when it is not used (not involved in any kind of movement).
  • The two subgroups of gross motor skills include oculomotor skills (running, swimming) and object-control skills (throwing and kicking).

Fine motor skills

  • It requires the usage of small muscle groups to perform small movements.
  • The performance of fine motor skills changes (retention loss) after non-use.
  • The reasons for the impairment of fine motor skills can be a stroke, congenital deformities, and developmental disabilities.
  • The performances involved in fine motor skills are the movements of the hands to a lesser extent than the legs and their parts.

Activities performed using motor skills

  • Using tableware: Using a knife, fork, spoon (for personal use), and utensils to serve dishes.
  • Opening and closing of food containers: Opening and closingscrew tops, carton spouts, plastic leftover containers, and boxes.
  • Twisting doorknobs: Twisting doorknobs, locks, slide chains, and keys.
  • Video gaming: Thumbing the joystick, pressing the key buttons, and watching the screen, and operating the controller at the same time.
  • Musical instruments: Coordinating both hands to play musical instruments, fitting the fingers in the right place.

Sub-disciplines of motor behavior

Motor learning, motor control, and motor development are the three sub-disciplines of motor behavior.

Motor learning

Motor learning is one of the sub-disciplines of motor behaviors, which helps examine how people acquire motor skills. It helps improve the accuracy of both simple and complex movements with respect to environmental changes. Motor learning is in contrast to the performance to execute motor skills, which results in a non-permanent change.

One of the ways to differentiate motor learning from performance is as follows:

  • An example of motor learning is: If the egg is boiled, it changes its state to solid. The egg is irreversible and is permanently transformed into a solid state.
  • An example of performance is: When the temperature of water drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, water gets solidified to ice. This is a reversible and non-permanent change.

The three stages of motor learning include:

Cognitive phase

  • It is the initial stage of motor learning, in which the goals are developed to understand the overall idea of the skills.
  • For example, before children master walking, they struggle and stumble a few times. The main goal is learning how to walk as children begin to take their first steps by watching other people around them to understand the purpose.

Associative phase

  • It is the second stage of motor learning, where the learner begins to demonstrate a more refined movement through practice.
  • For example, at the beginning stage, children may demonstrate small and choppy steps. But in the associative phase, they keep long and controlled steps. Therefore, the associative phase is a more progressed and refined movement.

Autonomous phase

  • It is the final stage, where the motor skills become automatic (autonomous).
  • For example, in this stage, the children will move in a stable manner both in a predictable environment (like home) or in an unpredictable environment (like parties, market areas, parks).

Motor control

Motor control is the regulation of movements in an organism with the help of neuronal structure. Motor control systems control the directed movement of an individual through reflexes. The nervous system should regulate both sensory information and evoke the signals for muscle movements to control movement.

The various disciplines that regulate the muscle movements include:

  • Multisensory integration
  • Signal processing
  • Coordination
  • Biomechanics
  • Cognition

Motor control is also necessary for human beings to interact with society to retain their goals, such as posture, stability, and balance.

A rectangular flowchart shows the motor control and its developmental process with data connected in a parallel direction. The data is connected as follows:Neural control of muscle1) Motor unit and force production2) Recruitment order Computational issues of motor control 1) Redundancy 2) Noise 3) Delays 4) Uncertainty 5) Nonstationary 6) Nonlinearity Sensorimotor feedback 1) Response to stimuli 2) Close-loop control 3) Open-loop control Coordination (1) Reflexes (2) Synergies (3) Motor programs Perception in motor control 1) Model-based control strategies 2) Information-based control strategies
Motor control

Sensory feedback

The sensory feedback of motor controls follows three mechanisms: response to stimuli, closed-loop control, and open-loop control.

  • Response to stimuli: This involves the process of the regulation of human movements with respect to sensory stimulation.
  • Closed-loop control: This involves the process of regulating the sensory information and using that information to produce more reliable movements.
  • Open-loop control: This involves the process of regulating a rapid and ballistic movement that ends before processing any sensory information. It is also known as feed-forward control, as muscle movements are integrating quickly.


The motor control issues include redundancy, noise (small fluctuations occurring at any point of muscle contraction), delays (delayed actions of motor neurons and sensory signals), uncertainty, nonstationary, and nonlinearity to produce movement.

The nerve cells obtain sensory information from the brain to produce muscle contraction. The muscle, in turn, produces a force that articulates the joints to produce movements.

Motor development

Motor development is the process that involves the physical growth and development of skeletal muscles, bones, sensations to produce better movements. Motor development is classified into three main categories.

  1. Fine motor skill development: This development takes place in the bones and muscles involved in fine (small) motor movements, such as movements in hands, toes, and the tongue.
  2. Gross motor skill development: This development takes place in the bones and muscles involved in gross (large) motor movements, such as running, walking, and more.
  3. Typical motor skill development: This development follows a sequence of actions taking place in the internal structure of the human body, such as the head, arms, hands, feet, and more.

Common Mistakes

Motor behavior is a kind of movement that ranges from involuntary twitches to goal-directed voluntary actions that start from head to toe. People often fail to differentiate motor skills from motor behaviors.

  • Motor skills define the body’s ability to manage the process of moving.
  • Examples of motor behaviors controlled by motor skills include standing, walking, swimming, and some other activities.

Context and Application

This topic is significant in the professional exams for undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate courses, especially for:

  • Bachelor of Science in Human Movement
  • Bachelor of Science in Human Movement and Sports Science
  • Master of Science in Kinesiology and Human Movement
  • Psychology
  • Cognitive Studies
  • Human Anatomy and Physiology

Practice Problem

Q1: Which of the following is not a gross motor skill?

(a) Balancing on one foot

(b) Jumping

(c) Throwing a ball

(d) Drawing

Correct choice: (d)

Q2: What is motor learning?

(a) Study of acquisition of motor skills as a result of practice and experience.

(b) Study of behavior

(c) Study of human movement

(d) Study of bacon

Correct choice: (a)

Q3: Find out the sub-disciplines of motor behavior.

(a) Motor skill, motor learning, and motor knowledge

(b) Motor knowledge and motor control

(c) Motor skill and motor learning.’

(d) Motor learning, motor control, and motor development.

Correct choice: (d)

Q4: What does the term motor control denote?

(a) Study of cars

(b) Study of acquisition of motor skills

(c) Study of knowledge

(d) Study of the neurological and behavioral process affecting the control of skilled movement.

Correct choice: (d)

Q5: Which of the following terms is used in motor learning when referring to an observed behavior?

(a) Practice

(b) Skill

(c) Performance

(d) Learning

Correct choice: (c)

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