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Media Article # 439


Monday, February 07, 2005

Strides in research. Kinesiology professor examines child violinists, Parkinson's disease — and images of Bigfoot.

By Paul Tosto
Pioneer Press


Was it Bigfoot on that grainy film or just a guy in a Bigfoot suit?

It might be the weirdest question posed to Jürgen Konczak, associate professor in the School of Kinesiology and director of the Human Sensorimotor Control labs at the University of Minnesota. But given what he knows about the science of movements, it wasn't entirely out of reach for him to help the Outdoor Life Network production crew that came asking.

Konczak and his students explore how psychology, neurology and kinesiology, the mechanics of body movement, come together to make humans move the way we do.

In a small space on the top floor of Cooke Hall on the Twin Cities campus, they also try to understand what happens when we can't make our bodies move right — a crucial question for people with neurological diseases, including Parkinson's, which can make a person's arms or legs shake involuntarily or go rigid.

With cameras tied to computers and special sensors, and machines built in-house to measure subtle movements of hands and forearms, they also hope to identify patients in the early stages of disease so treatment can begin sooner.

"The brain and movement always interested me. How do we move so gracefully and purposefully?" said Konczak, 47, who studied physical education but chose to pursue physiology instead of a career as a gym teacher.

He has spent much of his professional life since then watching how the brain orchestrates movement. That work is finding legs outside the Cooke building.

Hugo Bruggeman, one of Konczak's former students, studied the movement of hands and fingers in the sensorimotor control labs. Now, he says, he's using that knowledge in new research involving whole-body movement.

In a virtual reality lab at Brown University in Rhode Island, he's analyzing how people move around obstacles, with the ultimate goal of designing the exits in stadiums and buildings in ways that allow people to get out faster.

Konczak's lab also is looking at whether body movement yields secrets of how we learn. He's examining the movements of children as young as 4 learning to play the violin and is finding their approach to learning and complex movement is similar to that of adults.

It could be, he says, that the learning process is the same for our bodies no matter our age. "That could be an interesting finding: old dogs can learn new tricks," he said.

Konczak last winter agreed to look at footage of Bigfoot sightings and comment on the hairy beast's walking patterns for a documentary produced by local filmmaker Doug Hajicek for the Outdoor Life Network. The program ran in fall, and Hajicek expects it will re-air this spring.

Obviously skeptical, Konczak declined to confirm the Bigfoot video showed the walk of an unknown primate. But he told the university magazine Link that it wasn't the walk of a typical ape. It had some human qualities, but it wasn't a normal human walk, either. "If it was a guy in an ape suit, he certainly did a good job trying to be peculiar. Overall, it was a fun experience for the lab. We just don't get this stuff every day."

Konczak said in a recent interview the images looked like "someone carrying something heavy and delicate on their head." He hasn't seen the documentary, though he still keeps a chunk of the Bigfoot video on his computer.

His contribution was "extremely valuable," said Hajicek, who said he hopes to involve Konczak in a larger film that will take the Bigfoot analysis to a "higher level."

ON TELEVISION

The "Mysterious Encounters" episode featuring Jürgen Konczak's Bigfoot analysis may re-air this spring on the Outdoor Life Network. Go to ww2.olntv.com and click on "outdoor adventure" programs, then "Mysterious Encounters" for more information.


Bibliographical Information:

Paul Tosto covers higher education issues. Reach him at ptosto@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-2119.


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