Ballistic motor plans are rigid sequences of thoughts and behaviors that once set in motion resist feedback and therefore resist co-regulation while in progress.
Ballistic motor plans are behavioral states that represent indivisible wholes, where the parts (steps) are resistant to interruption, modification or re-ordering…
Steps are often “chunked” together neurologically, which is why the behavior seems so rigidly sequenced. An analog to this is how a musician must learn to operate her right and left hands independently of each other to play the piano. When starting, the beginning pianists’ hands are rather yoked together – but as she gets better at the piano, she can learn to operate her left and right hands in relative independence. The system of pianist and piano began as stereotyped, ballistic and overly or indivisibly “whole” actions, but, as what happens lawfully in all systems – it moved towards greater levels of differentiation and complexity.
Once a ballistic motor plan is launched, the individual’s brain and body focus almost all of its energy on “output” and there is at the same time a marked failure to uptake information while the sequence of thoughts and actions is already in motion. Actions and behavior lose their connection and responsiveness to context, and cognition is no longer “situated.”
In other words, once the individual forms and embarks on a certain train of thought (ideas and actions), it somehow becomes a “freight train of thought:” difficult and perhaps disastrous to interrupt. Indeed, the behavior is often described as “like a freight train,” “like a tape that has to run all the way to the end,” “running through all of the stop signs…”
Attempts to interrupt by gaining the attention of the individual and trying to get them to pay attention to something important in the “here and now” – to look or to listen, to take in information; to notice and deal with changes, etc. can lead to hostile reactions. Hostile reactions can range from expressions of annoyance to rage.
As mentioned, ballistic motor plans are chunks of behavior or inseparable sequences of behavior emitted as a whole and they appear to come from long term rather than short term memory or immediate perception. The marked lack of responsiveness to the environment leads is the result of the disproportionate energy the brain appears to expend on fulfilling the motor plan. This is at a cost to environmental/contextual evaluation – specifically, the noticing and tracking of changes going on in the environment. This further reduces the potential for flexible thinking and management of novelty and uncertainty.