No motor learning attached to walking, really??

It would seem my previous blog has generated some discussion on whether walking is simply an innate skill or there is motor learning attached to the process. For me it quite simple, but hey I am a simple guy.

Firstly we must not confuse learning with being taught. No one teaches you how to walk. But it is a self-driven learning process.

In fact is it driven by a desire to walk? The sensory motor stage of development as described by Piaget between 0-2 years involves learning by trial and error. As discussed in the previous blog failure is biological necessity.

Piaget also talks about goal-orientated behavior to bring about a desired result when we get to around 12 months. Right around the time we start to look to walk!

Well walking is just that, a goal orientated behavior. It is a better way to move around the world, just like those we see around us. It maybe an innate desire, who knows, but it is not a desire realized without the need for motor learning.

Lets look at what innate means:


1. Possessed at birth; inborn.

2. Possessed as an essential characteristic; inherent.

3. Of or produced by the mind rather than learned through experience

There has always been a discussion about whether walking is innate or not. So I suppose it is a matter of opinion. But not a fact.

So do we possess the ability to walk at birth? Well no, or we would walk out of the womb or soon after! Fish are born with the ability to swim. Humans are not born with the ability to walk.

Our reflex ability’s are the sucking reflex , clasping reflex, Moro reflex, Babinski reflex and Root reflex. We do have a stepping reflex but this is not walking which comes with motor learning. This is a simple reflexive action rather than a complex and coordinated skill.

Learning to walk IS a complex skill. In fact all movement is a skill that has motor learning periods associated to it. Motor learning is important and nowhere more so than in performance training where the skills being learned become exceptionally complex. But the same rules of motor learning still apply. People may be better at complex skill initially because they have previously chunked general movement patterns associated with that skill in previous motor learning experiences but generally the more reps they do the better they get (although not always!)

Although there may be elements of walking that are pre-encoded as research as suggests, even blind children learn to walk, and demonstrated by basic reflexes such as the stepping reflex. It is not a purely innate skill such as breathing or swallowing which we are able to do as soon as we are born however. Blind children will still have to go through the same motor learning process as their sighted peers if not more so. The environment we learn and experience will also play a part. Think of feral children who move like the animals that have adopted them.


The fact is we do not just get up and walk. We go through stages of motor learning to get there. Even without the rolling and crawling (which also involve simple reflexive components) that comes before, we first practice standing and swaying finding our balance, then take one of two steps and fall. We get up and try again practicing the complex motor skills associated with locomotion. Next time we make more steps.

Even the observation of people walking is involved with the motor learning process. Imitation through mirror neurons is vital to human development. This process I believe shows we are learning through experience, which by definition would not make it purely innate.

Associated reflexes maybe hardwired but the gross skill certainly is not just there and available as it later in our lives after we have been through this process. That’s why we start of waddling and swaying and then refining until we are more proficient at the skill. We do this through a learning process. A motor learning process.

We make neural connections and then myelinate the pathways to improve the firing rate and strength of the motor pattern. This is Hebbian learning. “neurons that fire together, wire together” So we practice like any learner of a skill that is new. This is not a purely innate or reflex based scenario.

The first stage of motor learning is the memory encoding or cognitive stage where we are cognitively aware of the task that needs to be performed. The performer may be more concerned with what to do rather than how to do it.

This maybe described as a desire to walk. This maybe something we are born with. But certainly does not replace the motor learning stage.

In the associative stage the participant is now concerned with performing and refining the skill. The conscious decisions become more automatic and can concentrate more on the doing of the task.

The autonomous stage is when the action being performed is automatic. Walking without conscious thought is a good example of this.

This process is vital for efficient operation in the brain. Moving without conscious effort decreases the need for conscious attention on the task. This means the task can be moved back down the brain from the frontal executive areas associated with conscious thought and put into action in older areas such as the cerebellum and spinal cord.

Looking at reflex’s does not give any credit to the brain and its role in everything we do and how we learn. It is a simple and limited way to understand the body.  A bit like just seeing muscles as simple reactors to bone motion which gives no credibility to the understanding of motor patterns, their development or neuroplasticity as a concept. If you are being taught this way are you being kept in the dark?