Case studies

12 April, 2016

Understanding Performance and Expertise

Professor Cathy Craig, School of Psychology

Cathy Craig’s research space at the Queen’s Physical Education Centre is a long gallery known as the Movement Innovation Lab. But it used to have another purpose. ‘Originally, it was to be a rifle range,’ Cathy says, ‘but there was never a shot fired here.’ Not a surprise in the Northern Ireland of the 70s. But these days there are different targets.

Cathy, a Professor in the School of Psychology, is engaged in a unique research project which looks at how we move, why we move and why sometimes we can’t. She studied psychology at Edinburgh University. ‘I really enjoyed research. I was particularly interested in movement and perception and action – things like how we can hit a golfball, how we can walk across the street between cars, how the brain decodes that information and allows us to guide our actions.’ For her PhD she focused on the problems of pre-term infants, devising a method of monitoring their sucking actions as a way of identifying future coordination difficulties. After university she spent eight years working at a movement and perception lab at the University of the Mediterranean in Marseille. ‘We did all sorts of experiments – parabolic flights where you can actually experience zero gravity – and I got into virtual reality as a resource. It was there that I discovered the power of virtual reality technology as a way of probing the complexities of the visual system.’ She was also able to combine her work with her love of sport. ‘I was always fascinated by the curved free kick but especially what it meant for the goalkeeper. I worked with experts from Adidas on the design of their ball and I got to carry out research with some of the world’s greatest players, at Marseille and AC Milan.’

Cathy’s latest project is called Tempus G, a five-year study being funded by the European Research Council. ‘It stands for the Temporal Enhancement of Motor Performance Using Sensory Guides. We control our movements all the time directing our eyes to read text, using a pen, picking up a cup. But what happens when temporal control of movement breaks down, as in Parkinson’s Disease?’ Her Movement Innovation Lab is equipped with an array of technological equipment but there is one curious construction. In the middle is a balance board, embedded in a foam platform, with a zimmer frame ‘which we got fromArgos.’ And there’s a video screen. Cathy explains, ‘We’ve created our own game specifically for adults over 65 who have difficulty controlling their balance. They’ve really taken to it. When they get a good score their balance confidence improves. The competitive edge is very valuable.’

Other research concerns people with Parkinson’s Disease. ‘Parkinson’s attacks the gearbox of the motor system of the brain, that part which allows you to initiate movement and to control it smoothly. We found that if you provide people with a cue, it makes a difference and they can actually move much better. We’re using the sound that’s made when someone walks on gravel. You can tell how big they are, how fast they’re moving, that sort of thing. We’re trying to see if people can use those sounds in order to walk better and so far the results are very promising. The next step will be to see how we can take this outside the lab.’ To measure human movement precisely, Cathy uses very sophisticated infrared cameras that record the motion of reflective markers placed all over the body. This is the same technology that is used for computer animation. ‘We’re trying to understand how someone moves and, if there’s something wrong, how you can improve things. We’re trying to make a difference to people’s lives.’

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