On rhythmic and discrete movements: reflections, definitions and implications for motor control

Exp Brain Res. 2007 Jul;181(1):13-30. doi: 10.1007/s00221-007-0899-y. Epub 2007 May 26.


At present, rhythmic and discrete movements are investigated by largely distinct research communities using different experimental paradigms and theoretical constructs. As these two classes of movements are tightly interlinked in everyday behavior, a common theoretical foundation spanning across these two types of movements would be valuable. Furthermore, it has been argued that these two movement types may constitute primitives for more complex behavior. The goal of this paper is to develop a rigorous taxonomic foundation that not only permits better communication between different research communities, but also helps in defining movement types in experimental design and thereby clarifies fundamental questions about primitives in motor control. We propose formal definitions for discrete and rhythmic movements, analyze some of their variants, and discuss the application of a smoothness measure to both types that enables quantification of discreteness and rhythmicity. Central to the definition of discrete movement is their separation by postures. Based on this intuitive definition, certain variants of rhythmic movement are indistinguishable from a sequence of discrete movements, reflecting an ongoing debate in the motor neuroscience literature. Conversely, there exist rhythmic movements that cannot be composed of a sequence of discrete movements. As such, this taxonomy may provide a language for studying more complex behaviors in a principled fashion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Therapy
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Classification
  • Humans
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Periodicity*
  • Posture / physiology