Our days are a symphony of movements — from mundane tasks like brushing our teeth to making the coffee, typing up our reports and driving our cars, cooking dinner and preparing for bed again — and the conductors of this symphony are our motor and sensory systems. Our eyes and our brains, nerves, muscles and bones work in tandem to keep us coordinated and balanced as we move through the world.
And most days, everything comes together in perfect harmony — so when we start to falter, to trip up the stairs or bump into tables or to drop our keys on our front porch, it can be cause for alarm. Clumsiness can be part and parcel of several serious medical conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis or even a stroke. However, most of our everyday oopsies aren’t cause for concern, even for people who might describe themselves as chronically clumsy.
In essence, what we’d define as clumsiness, or a lack of coordination and balance, is about how rapidly and efficiently our brains absorb and process information — we don’t register that, hey, there’s a pothole coming up in the road ahead and we better swerve our bikes in the next 10 seconds, so over the handlebars we go.
Sometimes, this slow processing speed is the result of a momentary distraction. Other times, it’s the result of prolonged stress or worrying. David Broadbent, a British experimental psychologist, began to question whether accident-prone people suffered from a low-grade yet chronic kind of cognitive failure and even developed a self-reported cognitive failures questionnaire (sample questions include: “Do you fail to notice signposts in the road?” and “Do you fail to hear people speaking to you when you are doing something else?”).
According to the cognitive failure theory, people who find themselves answering yes to a lot of these questions can regain some coordination and focus. By partaking in mindfulness training and meditation or using brain games to get our gray matter back in fighting form.
That said, research suggests that there are, indeed, times when our bodies simply won’t cooperate with us — even when we’re simply trying to walk up a flight of stairs.
During our teenage years, our physical development can happen so quickly that our brains and nervous systems simply don’t have time to recalibrate information about the size, speed and movement of our limbs.
Women are prone to bouts of clumsiness during certain times in their lives. Though we’d like to imagine all pregnant women as blissfully lit-from-within bastions of life and serenity, in fact, pregnancy can be laden with stubbed toes and dropped papers — after all, baby bumps do change a woman’s center of gravity, and the hormones that relax her joints in preparation for childbirth also impact her manual dexterity and reactivity. Changes in hormone levels can also make women who are about to start their periods extra clumsy. Lowered levels of progesterone have deleterious effects on our vision, hand steadiness and coordination of movements. Starting the pill can help balance out hormone levels and keep us from turning into accidental bulls in the china shop.
The good news is that some of the things we should be doing to live healthier, more productive lives are some of the best ways to combat clumsiness. Getting plenty of rest as well as mental and physical activity is essential for getting body and mind back to their best potential and back in synch with each other — because, even though they might not have you dancing the lead in Swan Lake, they ensure that every safe step you take is a piece of beautiful music.