Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/October 1889/The Pleasure of Motion

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MOTION gives both physical and moral pleasure. Physically, it enables us to remove ourselves for the moment from pain. Morally, it furnishes a satisfaction for our self-love, which is remarked especially in play and in our struggles against the forces of nature.

Before being a source of positive pleasure, our physical activity is stimulated by pain. Those movements, called spontaneous, which are the first signs of vitality in the child or animal, are explained by supposing them to be the reflex of some indefinite discomfort. Our organism is not a machine, as some say, in any of its parts, but is living and animated throughout. Even the organs that perform without the intervention of the will, and the play of which seems to be mechanical because it is not accompanied with a recognizable sensation, may have the rhythm of their movements determined by some local sensibility.

When I feel any suffering, I have only to execute some motion, to feel it less. Motion is the best of anæsthetics. It disperses at a stroke all the little uneasinesses that accompany even the normal working of our organs, and which we experience when we are occupied only with feeling ourselves live. When we make an energetic effort, we are nearly insensible to pain as long as it lasts. When I am at rest, a blow on the shoulder will hurt me. In the ardor of sport, in the excitement of a violent exercise, the roughest shock will hardly be felt. Every very intense sensation, we also know, provokes convulsive movements, sudden and violent muscular contractions. These movements are not mechanically determined by the sensation; they are produced voluntarily, although they will not remove the cause of the pain, at least to mitigate its effect. The howling of the wounded dog, the squirming of the worm that is cut in two, are a voluntary effort to escape suffering.

If the same pain recurs frequently, the animal soon remarks that some among these vague movements will contribute more directly than others to assuage it, and will give the preference to them. The habit of resisting a particular suffering by a special movement, becoming hereditary, forms a veritable instinct. In conformity with the general laws of evolution, there is established a selection between injurious and useful reflex actions, and the latter will gradually predominate.

Even when we are not suffering from any accidental uneasiness provocative of special muscular reaction, we are impelled to move by the simple need of motion. Every animal has to expend daily a more or less considerable sum of energy to procure food for itself. The oyster, fixed on its rock, imbibes, without effort and almost passively, the vegetable matter which the waves bring to it. A snail, drawing itself slowly along on its belly, easily reaches the leaves which are in its way. The ox marches, step by step, in the field for hours, feeding upon the grass-leaves with which its lips come in contact. A wolf has to make journeys of leagues every day in search of its prey. The swallow has to keep in incessant motion to procure enough insects to satisfy its appetite. To the necessity for eating is added that of escaping enemies, and this exacts an increase of activity from the animal. Thus, each one, according to its kind, is obliged to be in motion more or less every day, and is organized for it. If, through accidental circumstances, its activity ceases to be useful, it is nevertheless obligatory upon it, for its physical constitution, having become adapted by heredity to the normal life of the species, can not abruptly bend itself to other conditions of existence. Its organism continues to furnish it the same quantity of energy, which it has to expend in some way. Hence the movements of the captive animals—of the lion which paces its cage, and of the canary-bird that leaps from bar to bar. Hence the physical exercises with which persons whose occupation condemns them to a too sedentary life relax themselves. This necessity for motion is especially great in youth, because the young animal must train itself in all the movements it will have to perform at a later age, and must also exercise its muscles and joints to develop them. Thus every animal has a tendency daily to expend a certain quantity of force, which is determined, not by the accidental wants of the individual, but by the general wants of the species.

How is this expenditure regulated? By what criterion do we know when we need exercise? A matter so indispensable to the good working of our organization can not be the product of reflex action. It is evident that animals can not take exercise by rule, after the manner of a gentleman who imposes upon himself the obligation of taking "a constitutional" every evening. Even man can do this only exceptionally. Our intelligence permits us to satisfy these physiological exigencies in a more rational manner; but it does not give us notice of them. What would become of the most reasonable being in the world if he had to depend upon his reason to tell him what he needed? A real necessity exists for us to be warned by special sensations.

We sometimes dispose of this explanation cheaply by speaking as if we had direct knowledge of our strength. Nothing could be more simple were this the case. Strength accumulates in us while we are inactive, ending by giving us a painful sense of nervous tension, which prompts us to expend our excessive energy in certain exercises. We go through these first as a relief; then, our reserve force having been exhausted, we feel our strength failing, and the need of repose comes upon us. There would be no considerable objection to speaking in this way if our purpose was simply to indicate a correspondence between our muscular sensations and the dynamical state of our muscles. But we must take care not to believe that there is the shadow of an explanation in it.

What is it that takes place in us during that period of repose when we say that energy is accumulating in us? Our muscles are undergoing restoration, are getting into a condition to form new chemical combinations. But I have no knowledge how much force they can expend at a given moment; it exists in them in a purely virtual condition. I do not feel it any more than I feel the expansive force of the powder contained in a certain flask, or the heat that may be disengaged from a particular piece of charcoal. We have not, therefore, any degree of consciousness of our disposable energy. The anticipatory sensation which we feel just as we are about to make a movement, and which we take for a consciousness of the force we are going to expend, is only a preconceived imagination of the sensation of effort that will accompany the contraction. Even at the instant when the contraction is effected our sensation of effort only indicates to us the extent of the actual tension of our muscles. It answers so little to the real expenditure of our energy, that it would be exactly the same if we should stretch them in that way without performing any work. We shall therefore have to give up these conventional explanations and regard matters more closely.

When we have continued still for a long time, we feel, first, a great desire to move. Like all our appetites, the inclination to move is recognized, even before any sensation can give us cognizance of it, by the effect which it produces on the imagination. In unconscious hunger or thirst, we think, not precisely that it would be agreeable to drink or eat, but that some broiled chicken or a pot of beer would be very nice. So the young man who has been confined too long dreams of canoeing and horseback-riding; before thinking that those exercises will do him good, he pleases himself with representing them to himself. This desire, as it defines itself, becomes more intense; and, if it is opposed, intolerable. At the same time physiological phenomena become apparent, augmenting the uneasiness. A process of nutrition and reintegration is carried on in the muscle during rest. The products of combustion, or the molecules that form stable compounds, are eliminated and replaced by fresh combustible matter, or unstable compounds. The muscle is then in what Rosenthal calls the sensitive condition. The most minute spark will bring on an explosion; the slightest impression will provoke violent reflexes. In such a state we feel nervous, as it is called; or can not keep still. The expression is exact. Our sensitive condition requires the spontaneous movements which the mere idea of motion provokes. A typical example of such suffering from forced rest is afforded by the pupil waiting for school to be dismissed. He feels as if his back was breaking and his legs were growing stiff. When will the bell ring? He wishes with a frantic inclination that he could jump from his seat, shout, and run. He wriggles and drags his feet on the floor. A hard look from the teacher fastens him to his place, and he quiets himself; but what a punishment it is to endure it!

Motion also procures a positive physical pleasure for us. When we give ourselves up to an exercise, or go at anything with great energy, all the functions are accelerated, the heart beats more rapidly, breathing becomes more frequent and deeper, and we experience a general feeling of comfort. We live more, and are happy in living. Rapid and boisterous movements produce also a kind of intoxication and giddiness that have a peculiar charm.[1]

"Let us imagine," says M. Guyau, "what are the feelings of a bird as it opens its wings and glides through the air like an arrow; let us recollect what we ourselves have experienced in being carried by a horse at a gallop, or upon a boat dipping into the hollows of the waves, or in the whirl of a waltz; all these motions evoke in us the undefined idea pf the infinite, of unbounded longing, of superabundant and careless life, a vague rejection of individuality, a craving to go without restraint, to be lost in immensity; and such vague ideas enter as an essential element in the impression which a great number of movements cause us." The observation is correct; but I believe that this kind of pantheistic intoxication is at bottom only a cerebral congestion. A horse, plunging into a rapid gallop, and seeing a large void space opening out in front of him, will never fail, as the saying is, "to do himself up." The mere rapidity of his motions gives him vertigo; he loses sight of danger; and when an obstacle suddenly rises against him, if he does not jump over it, he breaks himself against it. So, all rapid movements deprive us of complete possession of ourselves; we go on, we follow our impulse. It may be a foolish one; so much the better. Go on! up! quicker! What is such behavior but sheer intoxication?

To the physical pleasure of motion is added a moral and emotional pleasure. In like manner as it helps us to escape from physical suffering, muscular activity may serve as a remedy for disappointments, for moral pains. We weep and struggle when we have a great grief, as well as when we are suffering from a physical wound. The most afflicted man forgets his trouble while he is performing a vigorous exercise. Byron had his boxing-gloves brought to him, and went through his accustomed practice with a servant, while his mother was being buried; but the servant felt that his touch was stronger than usual, and all at once he threw down his gloves and fled to his room. Who has not felt the necessity of what is called throwing off his grief? When we remain quiet our mind is, as it were, bent back upon itself, and all the pains that can affect us are augmented, as it were, by the very attention which we give them. In action we forget ourselves, directing our thought to the attainment of the purpose upon which we are fixed.

Physical exercises also give us positive mental pleasures, the chief among which is the satisfaction of our self-love. When I execute any movement, or devote myself to an exercise, I try to get as much as possible out of it. I want particularly to acquit myself better than any one else, and have a feeling of pride when I have succeeded. This leads to a real increase of ardor, and a luxury of physical activity. Observe youth who are indulging themselves in any sport together; is not emulation the essential principle of their activity, which enables them to expend all they have of available energy? Tell a child to run as long as he can; he will stop in a short time, out of breath. Give him rivals, and the fear of being left behind will prevent his feeling fatigue and provide him with unaccustomed nervous resources, and he will go till his strength is exhausted. It is a recognized rule with all couriers, gymnasts, canoeists, etc., that one should not train himself alone in exercises of speed; there should be at least two, to excite one another by competition. Some persons have tried to show that the pleasure of play is disinterested. They are speaking without knowledge. When we are playing, we are entirely occupied with the result of our activity. We may not be very particular in the choice of the end we shall seek; we may not care whether that end is worth the trouble we are taking; but, for all that, we may not be willing to have our faculties at work for nothing. We fix upon some end that we shall reach. If I take a walk, I say that I am going here, or there, or will walk so many miles. If I play a game of skill, I want to win, to make so many points, to accomplish something; I am not, then, seeking merely the pleasure of acting, but I try to reach a result agreeable in itself. Games of chance have no attraction if one is not interested in the play. Sometimes, this interest is conferred by the hope of a material or pecuniary profit; most frequently in the pursuit of the honor of having won. But, is working for glory disinterestedness? Pascal's analysis was more complete. The hunter loves to hunt, not only for the pleasure of walking in the fields in pursuit of a hare, not only for the pleasure of bringing his game home, but chiefly for the proud joy of exhibiting it. It may be said that this is all vanity; that the object is not worth the pains it has cost. But that matters not to the argument. I do not say that play is an affair of well-defined interest; but that we are excited in it by considerations of interest. At the moment when I am striving to arrive at that end, I do not measure its importance, I do not think of the reasons that first started me; there is the goal I have proposed to myself, and I run for it. If the thought occurred to me for an instant that this was all futile, only a pretext, my ardor would be cooled down at once. It is also easily seen that, when we engage in any exercise or game, we by a mental effort exaggerate the importance of the end sought. If we play billiards with a strong adversary, we call it a match, and hire a hall; and the players please themselves by imagining that they are staking their reputation on each carom-shot. A game of chess becomes very dramatic, and the player's hand trembles when he makes a decisive movement. When we start on a canoeing excursion, it pleases us to imagine for the moment that we are going to travel into distant regions. Walking in the forest, we say that we are exploring the country, and are going to make discoveries. In this way we try to satisfy the spirit of adventure that the usages of our too well regulated society have not wholly stifled. It is, therefore, an essential quality of play that, to take pleasure in it, we must mount the imagination, and fancy that what we are doing on a small scale is done on a grand one; must substitute mentally, for the futile activity in which we desire to be absorbed, some mode of superior and more fascinating activity. Tell me that I am willfully fooling myself, if you please. Tell me even that I have a secret consciousness that it is an illusion, and that I am more than half a dupe of the pretext that I have given myself. It is nevertheless true that the pleasure of action for the sake of action is not enough, and that I take interest in the game only so far as my self-love is seriously interested in it. It is still necessary for me to have a difficulty to overcome, a rival to surpass, an advance to make. In dismounting from a horse, in taking off our skates, in putting away our oars, we congratulate ourselves that we have become stronger, and we feel an imperious necessity for telling of our prowess. We should take less pleasure in a game of skill if we could not convince ourselves after each essay, and convince some one else, that we had become more adroit in it. Every exercise in which one is decidedly a past master inspires a vague distaste.

We are able also to determine, in every physical exercise, a particular kind of pride. Very simple or childish, if you please, but ail the deeper and more instinctive—that which one feels in conquering the forces of nature. We delight to refuse what they solicit us to do, and to accomplish what they seem to forbid. Hence the pleasure felt in climbing a hill, putting down an obstacle, leaping a ditch, and walking against wind and rain. In canoe-sailing we would rather stand close to the wind than be carried with it, and prefer running over the waves to flying before them. Of all these forces we struggle most earnestly against and most delight to overcome that of gravitation. It binds us to the earth by fetters which we are anxious to unloose, and inflicts disabilities upon us and exposes us to dangers that we are glad to escape. Motions of speedy transport are pleasant, because they relieve us for the moment from the burden of the feeling of inertia. Hence the agreeableness of riding, driving, cycling, spring-board jumping, vaulting, and riding in an express train. There is a charm in dreaming that we are leaping immense distances and prolonging the bound by the force of the will alone. In the struggle against height, falling is defeat; equilibrium is the defensive; motion of simple translation is the beginning of enfranchisement; and movement upward is triumph.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.


The Niagara-studies of Prof. Julius Pohlmann have led him to predict that, after the falls have receded one mile—or in two thousand years—there will be but one fall, the American fall having disappeared, and its islands will be represented by low hill-tops on a peninsula projecting from the American shore; but the fall will be nearly two hundred feet high. After a recession of three miles more, there will be again two falls at the foot of Grand Island, the Canadian fall being the larger. The height of the falls will thereafter diminish thirty-five feet for every mile they travel south; and long before they have receded twelve miles, or to the southern end of Grand Island, they must disappear entirely as falls, and present only a long series of rapids. The second American fall will recede more slowly than the Canadian fall, but will ultimately be reduced to the same condition, forming a river with swift-flowing current and perhaps a few short rapids.
  1. The modern infatuation for round dances is chiefly explained by this intoxication of dizziness. It is shown in children at a very early age.