Dr. Esther Thelen (1941-2004)

Just under 10 years ago, I met Dr. Esther Thelen, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Indiana University in Bloomington. At the time, I was working for a Bloomington newspaper, and was commuting from Indianapolis a couple of days a week. I can't remember how I heard about her, but I was immediately intrigued that a researcher was studying infant motor development. You see, I was studying that too because I was the father of two very young boys.

"Movement, then, is the real matrix of human thinking. By understanding how the brain controls the body, we are also segueing into how the brain works in general." -Dr. Esther Thelen

Perhaps the hook for my article was that she needed subjects for her experiments and my story was to be a call-for-subjects poised as a personality-driven feature. I interviewed her twice and have plenty of notes to show for it. I have other phone numbers and contacts, the "additional points of view" that I was going to acquire to round out the piece.

I just never got to it.

I have excuses - the job in Bloomington ended, I got this job at NUVO - but the truth is it just happens sometimes in this business. You don't get to every story.

Now I feel that I must write about her; unfortunately, my prose is in the past tense. Dr. Esther Thelen passed away on Dec. 29, 2004, after a battle with cancer. She was 63 years old.

Born in New York City, Thelen grew up in New Jersey, studied at Antioch College, then moved to the University of Wisconsin where she met her husband, David Thelen. Together, they went to the University of Missouri where Esther gave birth to two children, Jennifer and Jeremy. A biology major, she took graduate courses in behavioral biology and her dissertation explored what she called "pattern movements" - movements that repeat themselves over and over in a certain rhythmical way.

In 1985, both Thelens were hired by IU. Esther Thelen was director of the Infant Motor Development Laboratory where I first met her in the mid '90s. The lab was not housed in a large university building, but in a more residential setting northwest of the university. It was like a Discovery Zone for infants, where the tiny subjects could be observed on treadmills, in Jolly Jumper bouncers or on tables, mesmerized by mobiles, all under the watchful eyes of Thelen, her assistants and the babies' mothers.

Thelen told me her work was "motivated by the important question of how you come to be able to control your body. How do you learn how to move, how to stand up straight ... how to act adaptively in the world, how to remember what movements worked and what movements don't work ... A lot of this happens in the first year of life."

These "pattern movements" or rhythmic behaviors, according to Thelen, "always occur just on the cusp of a transition ... at a time when a baby has some control over that body part." They haven't, however, figured out how to master the new movement. She cited the example of when an infant can get up on his hands and knees, but not yet crawl; he tends to rock back and forth.

"It's as though, 'OK, I have to tune up something here' ... but the system gets captured by its own intrinsic dynamics, which are often rhythmical."

Thelen believed that an infant's interactions with the world "are the fundamental landscape for cognition ... Movement, then, is the real matrix of human thinking. By understanding how the brain controls the body, we are also segueing into how the brain works in general."

Her theories on child development were a significant contribution to the shift in thinking that development is driven by interactions with the world: "People used to think that the brain just developed and then the baby did things because their brain developed."

As such, the social policy implications of her research are profound; her data supports the assumption that children need to be raised in healthy, stimulus-rich environments. Thelen, who published a textbook in 1994, A Dynamic Systems Approach to the Development of Cognition and Action (with Linda B. Smith), told me, "I'm an empirical scientist and my most effective way of influencing policy is with good data."

Thelen enjoyed relating the story of an infant she visited in Bloomington who never crawled but instead "scooted on her butt." Thelen recalled that she "couldn't figure why [the infant scooted] until I looked around. She lived in a house with amazing shiny wood floors and so it was effortless to push herself along on her butt where if she'd tried to crawl she wouldn't have had enough friction ... The really important thing is getting across the room. You do what you can to do it."

Her interest in infant motor development did not, however, take hold until her own children were older. "Unfortunately," she told me, "I missed the opportunity of having two at-home subjects."

Then she laughed, adding, "It's probably better for them that I did."


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