Self-Regulation – the heart of Human Origami


Word has it that humans are remarkably adaptive. We seem to be able to shift gears spontaneously or change directions on a dime, to meet the moment. Feeling a bit too hot? Simply, whip out a fan, don cooler clothing, down a cold beer, seek shade, or, short of the usual options, mentally picture yourself in a cool oasis. Scientists call this creative capacity, self-regulation — the agency to guide and control our own actions. Self-regulation gives us a sense of empowerment that enables us to act independently as conditions change.


Part nature and part nurture, self-regulation is a mix of genetics and learned behavior  — curious ingredients that shape human destiny from the get go. Biologists marvel at this organizing skill – one that exhibits itself across scale from human cells to eco-systems. From the moment DNA assembles into proteins, until the moment we die, self-regulation is a behavioral constant in the sea of life’s changes.


What physical patterning is a sign of self-regulation at work? You guessed it! – Folding. At the molecular level, folding dynamics determine the fate of cells. Throughout development, how we fold (and unfold) in ways that shape our body, dictate our style of communication, and ultimately determine our health.


Today, molecular biologists and nano (bio)-engineers study folding patterns to understand normal and pathological development. Protein misfoldingappears to hold keys to the origin of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and a host of other pathologies (Chaudhuri & Paul 2005). What causes normal protein folding patterns to go awry and how can these molecular folding patterns be engineered to avoid pathological pathways?


Similarly, for materials science, how can rigid (wo)man-made materials repeatedly self-fold and unfold into flexible structures without breaking? The mental gymnastics needed to solve folding problems seems to demand a command of mathematics, a dose of improvisation and play, and plenty of trial and error. Here origami folding is a source of inspiration.


Take tessellation as an example. Tessellation is the process of organizing geometric shapes (‘tiles’) into repeating patterns. The organization of repeating tiles is critical to creating functional structures from pavements to buildings. How can each shape fit perfectly adjacent to the next one, without gaps or overlapping? Paper origami artist, Eric Gjerde has written a how-to book of instructions on how to fold ‘origami tessellations’ Here are steps in reducing the complexity of repeating folds into recognizable simplicity, such as pinwheels, daisy chains, basket fweaves, and more. More outside the box is the work of graphic artist M.C. Escher (1898 – 1972). Escher juxtaposed animals in tessellating patterns that transformed into new species and objects that tell a magical story


What has not yet joined the conversation on folding dynamics in solving problems of human movement. I created Human Origami to help open the conversation between disciplines. As an improvisational movement practice, Human Origami operates as a revelatory art form on folding.  Here, patterns of body folding and unfolding give rise to new movements – without collapsing, breaking, or otherwise fragmenting.  How a bodily fold ‘fits’ into another fold is not so problematic. Like cake batter, movement folds back into itself in ways where nothing is lost or damaged. The body has far more flexibility to fold into multiple shapes and relationships than, say, ceramic tiles. And, self-regulatory control lies in the moment of improvisation, where the body creates its own solutions.


How this all works is hard to analyze, but philosophy sheds some light on the subject. Dance philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone describes improvisation as a process of ‘thinking in movement.’ Here, one folding moment spills into the next, in a continual sequencing of movement flow, a ‘perpetual dissolution and dilation,’ a ‘moving present,’ (Sheets-Johnstone 2009:33-35). These thoughts are echoed in the writings of philosopher Gilles Deleuz, whose view of reality is that of an enfolding and unfolding continuum : “Folding-unfolding no longer simply means tension-release, contraction-dilation, but enveloping- developing, involution-evolution The simplest way of stating the point is by saying that to unfold is to increase, to grow; whereas to fold is to diminish, to reduce, to withdraw into the recesses of a world. Yet a simple metric change would not account for the difference between the organic and the inorganic, the machine and its motive force. It would fail to show that movement does not simply go from one greater or smaller part to another, but from fold to fold.” (Deleuze 1993)


But, now for the real challenge: how to enter into the stateof improvisation, where the mind-body is set free to move in non-Newtonian ways, giving rise to novel movements and solving problems that otherwise would not be readily accessible? At the heart of improvisation lies self-regulation and when it comes to human origami, nothing is prescribed or anticipated!

I’ll cover some basics in the next blog!

enjoy the artful solution bees have come up with in wanting to store honey – the honeycomb – nature’s tessellation!






Chaudhuri, TK and Paul S (2006). Protein-misfolding diseases and chaperone-based therapeutic approaches. FEBS J. 273(7):1331-49.

Deleuze, Gilles (1993) The Fold-Leibniz and the Baroque, The Pleats of Matter.

Demaine, Erik D, O’Rourke, J (2005). A Survey of Folding and Unfolding in

Computational Geometry. Combinational and Computational Geometry 52.

Dill, Ken A, MacCallum Justin L (2012). The Protein-Folding Problem, 50 Years On. Science 338, 1042.

Eric Gjerde (2008). Origami Tessellations: Awe-Inspiring Geometric Designs

Sheets-Johnstone, Maxine (2009). The Corporeal Turn: An Interdisciplinary Reader. John Benjamins.