Beyonce’s Central Pattern Generator

What’s funny about this video? At one level, it’s the idea that a 9 month old (or however old this kid is – he’s cruising, so he’s probably right around there) knows his dance moves well enough to do what he does with his right arm at 0:39. We all know that his brain is basically producing these movements all on its own, in the absence of the cultural references that would be guiding 18 year olds out for a night of clubbing.

The second thing that’s funny is that at certain points his nervous system seems to randomly produce partial moves. For example, at 0:55 he engages in a series of right leg kicks that look like part of a coherent dance sequence, but which as viewers we know are probably occuring completely outside his consciousness.

The neuroself explanation is that what we’re witnessing is rogue central pattern generators (CPG’s for short) taking momentary control over individual limbs.  What’s a central pattern generator? Essentially its any neural network – the one for this kid’s leg is in his spinal cord, for example, but the one for his arm movement is more likely in his basal ganglia + brainstem + spinal cord – that once triggered produces a sequence of muscle contractions that produce a pattern. No thought or conscious control is required to produce the entire pattern; you just have to get it going, and it will keep going while you turn your attention to other matters.  In fact, it can trigger all by itself, outside of your awareness completely – as is likely the case with most of this kid’s moves.

Here’s a few CPG’s you’ve probably used already today:

  1. Walking
  2. Sitting down (or up)
  3. Brushing your teeth
  4. Typing various words or part words. For example, in this sentence, ‘ing’ is a CPG for me that I actually struggle with a fair amount; if I ever type a word ending in -ied, as in ‘cried’, which is far less common an ending than -ing, typing the ‘i’ will often trigger an ‘ing’ CPG when what I consciously wanted was ‘ied’.  And so when I go back and read my sentence, instead of writing ‘my baby cried all last night’ I will have written ‘my baby crying all last night.’

The meta concept here is kind of cool.  One way of looking at your life is that it has been one long endeavor to learn new CPGs.  I, for example, was born not knowing how to walk, or sit, or brush my teeth, or type, or ride a bike – but now I don’t have to think about any of them. Learning French, or how to play tennis, or how to drive, or even more complex sequences like dancing or swiping your metrocard in the subway turnstile, are all efforts to actively ‘download’ skills into CPGs.

This process involves conscious attention, and a lot of prefrontal cortex (PFC) planning, as well as a fair amount of conditioning – you reward and punish your various efforts to learn the CPG until your forehand is just right.  Once the sequence is repeated a few dozen times, it begins to be ‘memorized’ by regions in the center of your brain, particularly the basal ganglia and cerebelllum, and is recursively pushed down from the PFC towards the spinal cord.

You can almost imagine your brain ‘swallowing’ patterns and putting them on as weight down below, where they are carried around and pulled out when necessary.

The little boy in this video was essentially born with a whole set of what we might call micro-CPGs for controlling individual limbs; he’s in the process of memorizing how to sequence them to produce the macro-CPGs, like some hot moves on the dance floor, that make culture possible.

– Peter Freed, MD


Yin and Knowlton. The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation. Nat Rev Neurosci (2006) vol. 7 (6) pp. 464-76

Ronsse et al. A computational model for rhythmic and discrete movements in uni- and bimanual coordination. Neural computation (2009) vol. 21 (5) pp. 1335-70

Pinto and Golubitsky. Central pattern generators for bipedal locomotion. Journal of mathematical biology (2006) vol. 53 (3) pp. 474-89

Graybiel. The basal ganglia: learning new tricks and loving it. Current Opinion in Neurobiology (2005) vol. 15 (6) pp. 638-44

Baev. A new conceptual understanding of brain function: basic mechanisms of brain-initiated normal and pathological behaviors. Critical reviews in neurobiology (2009) vol. 19 (2-3) pp. 119-202


  1. Great stuff! Thanks!

    Is there any difference between what you’re calling CPGs or habit generators, and what others call procedural memory?

    1. Thanks for stopping by Ramana, and also for your iestrneting insight. Interesting new research shows how the personality and brain are far more fused than once thought and that emotional intelligence (which is deeply embedded in intrapersonal intelligence) literally controls far more of the brain’s capability than once thought. On your iestrneting insights about peace of mind there is also research to back your own observations and experiences here:-). Thanks for sharing these!

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  2. In my understanding, procedural memory occurs when the basal ganglia stores a CPG that had to be learned with a fair amount of attentional resources. However many CPGs aren’t as high up as the basal ganglia. If you decorticate a cat, it still has stretching, scratching, and walking CPGs – and we all have heard that chickens don’t need brains to use their running around CPGs. All of those spinal cord CPGs are not really procedural memories. But then, concepts like ‘procedural memory’ are from the 20th century and don’t really map neatly onto the brain. The distinction between procedural and declarative memory is really heuristic rather than ontological, in my view.

  3. Wow, I thought those were pretty well-accepted distinctions!

    So what would be a more modern way of distinguishing between the episodic or autobiographical memories routed through the hippocampus, and learned CPGs mediated by the basal ganglia and cerebellum?

    Is it just the terms procedural and declarative you think are dated, or the whole distinction between implicit and explicit memory?

  4. How do you know it’s a boy, if you don’t know how old the kid is (which would imply you don’t know the kid)?

    1. I totally agree, Ellen, that the only anwreaess that makes any difference at all in our lives is the anwreaess that we translate into action. Until we’ve done that, we can never call it a paradigm shift because true paradigm shifts affect every aspect of our lives.

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  8. run from stuck-in-the-rut routines that make you too faefrul to try a new approach.a0 It’s that basal ganglia that shouts daily for these, and the shout is far louder outside your circle. It’s main purpose

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