Tending to Tendencies: the Inaugural James C. Houk Lecture

On March 2, Northwestern University’s Department of Physiology hosted the first annual James C. Houk lecture in Motor Control. Simpson Querrey Auditorium was packed with eager students, distinguished professors, and an altogether curious audience.

The event’s namesake, James C. Houk, was proudly positioned in the front row and accompanied by his wife, son, and grandson.

The lecture was actually a short series of lectures, emceed by Northwestern’s own Lee E. Miller, PhD, and kicked off by T. Richard Nichols, PhD, Professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology. Nichols is a former student of Houk and shared, in addition to nuanced and insightful thoughts on the golgi apparatus, fond memories of their time together in the lab.

Professor Nichols recalled a night he and Houk spent deep in their experiments, eagerly collecting and reviewing data. When they finally took a break from the work, they realized that neither of them had eaten. They also realized that all the local restaurants had closed. So they did what any sensible pair of researcher-friends would do – they grabbed a bottle of wine from the fridge and kept on working through the early hours of the morning.

The story was told with an endearing sense of nostalgia that seemed to weave through the entire event. At the reception more memories were shared alongside a photograph slideshow that took us through the life and career of the notable professor. The evening was a meaningful moment in celebration an influential career.

Houk received his PhD from Harvard University in 1966, then did postdoctoral work in France before returning to Cambridge to serve as an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. He took over his role at Northwestern in 1978, when he was recruited from his role as associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Medical School.

Well known for one of his early papers, “Feedback Control of Skeletal Muscles” (Brain Research, 1967), Houk’s work examines the many facets of control systems within the nervous system. Each of the presenters noted the range of Houk’s expertise, citing papers which examined the spinal cord, the cortical brain, and the ethereal concept of mind.

Andrew Pruszynski, PhD, (Canada Research Chair in Sensorimotor Neuroscience and Assistant Professor at Western University in London, Ontario) mentioned not only the influence of Houk on his career, but the fulfilling challenge of wrestling with the dynamic concepts which are essential to Houk’s work.

Keynote Speaker Peter L. Strick, PhD. (Thomas Detre Professor & Chair of Neurobiology and Scientific Director at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute) spoke to the value of examining the complicated relational causality that underlies motor control. He credits Dr. Houk with influencing the appreciation of many in the audience – and in the greater scientific community – now have for this style of thinking.

Another core theme of the day presented itself at the lecture’s reception, where some of us discussed the idea of tendency.

Earlier in the evening, Dr. Pruszynski’s lecture highlighted (among other elegant considerations from his research) the moment in motor control when activation shifts from spine to cerebral cortex.

Pruszynski referenced a graph from one of his studies before explaining to the audience that, in movement, longer latency response times suggested cortical activation, while shorter responses can be attributed to the spinal cord. There is not a lot of cognitive processing needed when you recoil from stepping on a tack, he explained – that sort of reaction is more deeply encoded.

Buy what of our physical responses to situations that are not as acute as the stepped-on tack?

Experience influences prediction, and prediction influences reaction. Based on previous experience (which requires cognitive evaluation initial exposures), we build a sense of understanding. Portions of that understanding, like how fire is hot or ice is cold, will be more deeply encoded. We do not need to reevaluate the hotness of fire every time we encounter it.

Looking out one’s window to snowy morning can trigger a response based on predictions formed by similar experiences. Some get a shiver and rub their arms. Others reach for a coat. These combinations of cognitive appraisal and encoded responses are being regularly conditioned. If they are done often enough, they become habitual.

These are our tendencies, we intuited.

When we are driving, we tend to slow down when we see a police car, for example. This is a subconscious action build from conscious evaluation of previous experiences. Our fight or flight reaction to a roaring tiger has been encoded over many generations but our tap the break reaction to a police car was built during our lifetime.

Jessica Ellis (Program Manager in the Department of Psychology at the Feinberg School of Medicine) suggested that Dr. Pruszynski’s ideas could serve as a great metaphor for psychological experiences as well, referencing the research on psychological priming and the influence of previous trauma in triggering non-cognitive reactions.

Just as our nervous system tunes itself to the feedback of its experience, so does our psychology.

As we stood at small tables, drinking wine and enjoying each other’s company, bathed in the glow of a sentimental slideshow, it occurred to us that if reactions and responses can be encoded, primed, and triggered, then we ought to tend to our tendencies. Those tendencies influence our responses faster than executive control.

We agreed that it might be a good idea to examine our knee-jerk reactions, our default settings, our habits, and take stock of how they came to be.

We wondered how many professors consider this when interacting with students. A student’s appreciation for curiosity, collaboration, and diligent work can be directly impacted by their experience with a professor, when the concepts are first introduced.

Repeated interaction between professor and student would define a working tendency. Those tendencies – those habits and norms – could influence the way a student would approach their work. That student, when they become a professor, might have a similar impact. Tendencies create ripple effects.

Dr. James C. Houk, namesake of the lecture, feeling “incredibly grateful.”

The first annual James C. Houk lecture initiated a string of deep thinking. That was probably the intention.

When the lectures concluded, Houk addressed the crowd. The audience fell into hushed appreciation. He expressed his gratitude. He thanked his family. His wife, son, and grandson smiled in appreciation. We all did.

Standing ovations might be a tendency developed in previous moments of awe and appreciation. At Dr. Houk’s final “thank you,” the response was well-considered and well-deserved.