Luca Daniel

Luca Daniel

Awarded in 2023

Body Works

Investigating the Elements of Organized Human Movement

Expert energy flows

Many people have watched a trained athlete, dancer, or martial artist perform remarkable feats and think to themselves: “I could never do that.” Or “I don’t have the body for that.” Yet we all basically have the same body—the difference is the training that enables such agility, balance, and elegance. MIT Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Luca Daniel, PhD, who is a competitive ballroom dancer and bocce player who also plays guitar, is studying these “organized movements” to see if there are common principles among diverse types of specially trained individuals that those of us who are not so well-trained do not share.

An important collaborator on this project is MIT Research Scientist Praneeth Namburi, PhD, who also combines a career in science with a passion for competitive ballroom dancing; a key influence is their dance coach, Armin Kappacher, who helms the MIT Ballroom Dancing Team.

“Armin has no training in physics,” says Dr. Daniel, “but when he discusses how the body stores and expends elastic energy, how it can be conserved and how it flows, it reminds me of how power-electronic systems in hybrid vehicles work. That commonality inspired this project.”

In launching the investigation, the two researchers first proposed a set of foundational principles for organized movement, which includes the concept of tensegrity—a structural principle for energy storage and retrieval—as well as factors that allow for optimal elasticity of energy and movement in the human body, and the critical role of fascially defined muscle systems that can store and transfer elastic energy. “Combining this ideological framework with the experience of dancing led to a fascinating set of testable hypotheses on organized movement, and ideas for creating physiologically and physics-grounded computer models of organized movement,” says Dr. Namburi.

To isolate, analyze, and quantify this organized movement, the project will involve hypothesis testing through studies that compare movements of world-class experts with untrained individuals using a number of data acquisition modalities—among them, motion capture, electromyography, and ultrasound imaging. Using these technologies to measure elastic energy flow in the body, the pair hope to be able to quantify organization in movement.

“We envision a world where humans, therapists, scientists, and engineers understand and exploit a deeper structure of movement, like top athletes and artists do, with resulting benefits in health and wellness. We propose to realize this vision through an interdisciplinary, integrative approach that bridges microstates of anatomical elements with the macrostate of efficient, elegant movement.”


Flexing their muscles

Combining art and science in a single interdisciplinary project led by researchers who have expertise in both areas yet have never before brought them together in a lab setting is a high-risk venture that does not generally appeal to traditional funding sources. Fortunately, having access to the MIT.nano Immersion Lab allowed them to do some pilot measurements to help guide the contours of the effort. “We are extremely grateful for the Bose Fellows program, which is allowing us to elaborate and share our vision,” says Dr. Daniel. “There is an assumption that the brain guides all movement, but we believe that a lot goes on at the bone and muscle level; establishing that principle will be a first step toward making this work fundable.”


The dance of life

“I believe that the movement quality of experts is fundamentally different from that of untrained individuals, even when performing everyday movements such as reaching to pick up an object,” says Dr. Daniel. “By studying experts in the lab to formalize and test the principles of organized movement, I hope to one day codify this knowledge to protect people from injuries, improve quality of life and wellness, and reduce healthcare burdens across age groups and professions. Our findings may also inform future developments in robotics and soft robotics to enable the most efficient movements.”

Says Dr. Namburi, “This project means a lot to me. Science is the language with which I first learned to make sense of the world; dance came much later in life. Working with Dr. Daniel in this research allows me to look at my passions with a new lens—they’re no longer two separate things to me.”