Psychomotor abilities, skills, and constructs are measured for a number of practical purposes, including the understanding of neurological deficits, appropriate perception-stimuli interactions, safety, intelligence,emotional wellbeing and stress tolerance. Today, psychomotor assessments are also used in the field of biofeedback. Psychomotor abilities can be defined as the process of interaction between the perceptual systems (or five senses), the brain (where perceptual information is interpreted) and the body (where the individual reacts to such perceptual stimuli). Tan (2006) explains that ‘psycho’ refers to the mind or psyche, and ‘motor’ to the physiological body. More generally ‘psychomotor’ can thus be seen as the mind-body interaction, and ‘psychomotor abilities’, as those capacities which allow for effective interaction between the two and the environment (Tan, 2006).

The advent of modern psychomotor theory occurred during the inception of Experimental Psychology at the turn of the 19th century. Hermann von Helmholtz (1821 – 1894) is considered the father of modern nerve conduction theory, which was informed by Bell and Magendie’s work on the structure of the nervous system. By incorporating the nervous system into perception and behavioural reaction, Helmholtz made invaluable contributions to the study of psychomotor abilities. Helmholtz believed that all perception and reaction to stimuli was governed by the nervous system, which was in turn governed by the innate speed of physiological nerve conduction. He played a key role in the development of psychomotor instruments to measure the speed of nerve transmission. Helmholtz disagreed with the notion that nerve conduction was instantaneous. He also believed as most other theorists did, that the reaction to stimuli from the environment was a function of processing capacity and subjective interpretation. Consequently, the capacity of an individual to respond effectively to his/her environment was governed by their unique nervous system and biological endowment. Helmholtz also proposed, as many other experimental theorists did, that intelligence was related to the speed of perception.

A theorist who further developed these ideas was John Dewey (1859 – 1952) who explained how humans interact with their environment, by making sense of it, and interpreting such sensory information in an integrated manner. The reflex arc (expanded on in Dewey’s Reflex Arc Concept of Psychology) revolutionised the way in which behaviour was interpreted by psychologists and physiologists. Dewey explained that stimulus, perception, interpretation, and response are not discrete functions all occurring from the initial environmental stimulus, but rather are a coordinated whole with equifinal processes (the process can be initiated from anywhere). Thus, the psychological reflex arc integrated the internal initiation of behaviour, and the responses to stimuli. This was an important development as it allowed a multitude of different psychomotor instruments to be developed that measured specialist as well as generalist psychomotor abilities.

The first theorist to coin the term ‘psychomotor’ was Carl Wernicke (1848-1905). Wernicke worked on aphasia (a term he also coined). Through the study of aphasia, Wernicke demonstrated how human functioning can be explained by psychosensory input, psychomotor output, and the intrapsychic functions which coordinated the two (Weckowicz, 2010). Wernicke used the psychological reflex arc proposed by John Dewey in 1896 to explain how humans interact with their environment, by making sense of it, and interpreting such sensory information in an integrated manner.

The Brass Instruments Era

With the development of these new theories, a need arose to measure psychomotor abilities, which may have been the impetus for the Brass Instruments Era (1800 – 1930) where theorists such as Wilhelm Wundt (1832 – 1920), Francis Galton (1822 – 1911), Clark Wissler (1870 – 1947), and James McKeen Cattell (1860 – 1944) contributed to the measurement of human behaviour.

Wundt was responsible for the development of numerous psychological instruments, most of which can be considered psychomotor instruments (Gregory, 2003; Hergenhahn, 2009). The thought meter, a device composed of swinging pendulums and calibration needles was one such instrument. Wundt would measure the degree to which the individual was capable of anticipating the movements of the pendulum (he compared these results with the real calibrations). By contrasting the observed and real positions of the pendulum, Wundt measured a rudimentary type of mental processing speed.

Galton, considered the father of psychological testing, developed thousands of measurement instruments. So obsessed was the pioneer with measurement that he even developed instruments to measure beauty, the boringness of lectures, and the efficacy of prayer (Gregory, 2003). Some of the psychomotor assessments Galton developed included the tint discrimination instrument, which determined to what degree an individual could discriminate between visual tints of light, and reaction time instruments, which measured the delay between the presentation of a stimulus and reaction to it. Galton proposed that mental speed was greatly related to intelligence, a construct not well understood at the time.

Cattell was also fascinated by the notion that mental speed was related to intelligence. He engaged in two years of painstaking reaction time research with Wundt, in which thousands of individuals were tested for their reaction speed in relation to different stimuli. Cattell discovered that certain people have small, but consistent differences in their reaction speed. He thus proposed that there were individual differences in the processing speed of people. Unfortunately, Wundt was not interested in these findings and did not support Cattell. Galton, however, supported Cattell’s reaction time experiments and worked with him for many years measuring numerous motor constructs (see Table 1).

Table 1

Cattell’s measurement instruments

Modern conceptions of the psychomotor domain

With the advent of psychomotor theory and the development of a better understanding of job-related requirements, testing and assessment of the psychomotor abilities for job fit started to become evident. Many tests were developed to measure the domain and its possible impact on job-related requirements from the First and Second World War to the late 1970’s. These assessments are summarised in Table 2.

Table 2

Examples of psychomotor assessments developed 1910 – 1979

Aspects such as two-hand coordination, visual processing, strength, stamina, reaction time, integrated perception, auditory reaction, leg strength, speech formation, concentration, and intelligence were all measured within the psychomotor domain. Unfortunately, a domain structure or factor structure for psychomotor abilities had not yet been developed. A domain structure for the psychomotor abilities (or skills) would unify the seemingly separate aspects of psychomotor abilities/assessment and lend validity to the measurement and use of such constructs.

Two theorists most notably responsible for the development of these domains were Joy Guilford (1897 – 1987) and Edwin Fleishman (1927 – present). Guilford disagreed with Charles Spearman (1863 – 1945) that intelligence could be reduced to a single numerical value. Guilford proposed the view of multiple intelligences in which motor ability was as important as mental ability. To fully realise a psychomotor domain, Guilford and his colleagues laid out all the assessments and measurement tools of psychomotor ability in a lecture hall at the University of Southern California, and grouped them based on the body part used and the kinds of abilities measured. Guilford then factor analysed data on these particular psychomotor abilities and used intercorrelations to separate and group them. ‘Body Parts’ included Gross (general abilities), Trunk, Hands, Limbs, and Fingers (Guilford, 1956). Psychomotor abilities included aspects such as General Strength, Reaction Time, Arm Speed, Flexibility, and Hand Dexterity (to name a few). Guilford’s psychomotor domain allowed a psychomotor map to be generated, which would inform the development of psychomotor assessments into the 21st century. Interestingly, Guilford found that psychomotor abilities shared much of the variance of ‘pure’ intelligence constructs such as ‘g’. It was theorised that perception and processing speed (something that Helmholtz found) was related heavily to both general intelligence and psychomotor ability.

While Guilford was developing his psychomotor domain, Fleishman developed his own domain based on numerous psychomotor measurement instruments. Fleishman compared these measurement tools with their validity, how well they measured the specific psychomotor ability, and grouped those abilities, which intercorrelated highly. Surprisingly, both Fleishman and Guilford’s domains validated the other, with both describing similar psychomotor factors (Singer, 1972).

These theorists were thus responsible for the development of a unifying domain-structure for the adequate measurement of psychomotor abilities. Although modern psychomotor tests and assessments are generally computer generated, and make use of advanced sensory equipment and simulation exercises (see the Vienna Test System), most of the constructs they measure can still be traced to the psychomotor domains of Guilford and Fleishman.

Developments of the psychomotor assessment

Psychomotor assessments today are no longer in their early brass instrument format. Schuhfried has developed the Vienna Test System (VTS), which has integrated numerous psychometric tests in a computerised format. Many psychomotor tests proposed by early theorists have now become virtual. Although these assessments are much more advanced in comparison to their early counterparts, they still measure similar constructs (see Table 3).

Table 3

VTS tests most used in psychomotor assessment

New developments in the neurological fields have led to a better understanding of body-mind interactions. Research with neurotransmitters, affect, arousal, cortical stimulation, electroencephalographic measurement (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), galvanic skin response measurement, and physiological monitoring have resulted in a neurobiofeedback revolution (Leger, 1992; Tan, 2006). Modern psychological tests now make use of these tools to contextualise results. Motor functions can be isolated, and fMRI’s are showing how poor psychomotor responses may be the result of stimuli misinterpretation on a neurological level or due to stress (Tan, 2006). The future of assessment (not only psychomotor assessment) may therefore see the integration of personality, intelligence, motor response, and physiological measurement to fully explain the mysteries of human behaviour. It may be that psychomotor assessments, personality assessments, intelligence tests and physiological measurement will be integrated into something called ‘human assessment’ or ‘neurobehavioral assessment’ in the near future, which may bring together all forms of human testing and assessment.

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