If you’re pointing at something and don’t want your arm disturbed, you stiffen your arm: you co-contract your agonist and antagonist muscles, so that you’re still pointing in the same direction, but now the bigger muscle restoring forces will resist perturbations more than when your arm was relaxed. In fact, in all movements, the level of agonist/antagonist co-contraction – i.e., the stiffness – must be set to some level, so how does the motor control system know what stiffness to set? This Friday, February 8th, at Sensorimotor Journal Club, Amy Orsborne will present two papers on some studies looking at how sensory feedback affects control of stiffness:


Burdet, E., Osu, R., Franklin, D. W., Milner, T. E., & Kawato, M. (2001). The central nervous system stabilizes unstable dynamics by learning optimal impedance. Nature, 414(6862), 446-449. (link to pdf of article)


To manipulate objects or to use tools we must compensate for any forces arising from interaction with the physical environment. Recent studies indicate that this compensation is achieved by learning an internal model of the dynamics, that is, a neural representation of the relation between motor command and movement. In these studies interaction with the physical environment was stable, but many common tasks are intrinsically unstable. For example, keeping a screwdriver in the slot of a screw is unstable because excessive force parallel to the slot can cause the screwdriver to slip and because misdirected force can cause loss of contact between the screwdriver and the screw. Stability may be dependent on the control of mechanical impedance in the human arm because mechanical impedance can generate forces which resist destabilizing motion. Here we examined arm movements in an unstable dynamic environment created by a robotic interface. Our results show that humans learn to stabilize unstable dynamics using the skillful and energy-efficient strategy of selective control of impedance geometry.


Franklin, D. W., Liaw, G., Milner, T. E., Osu, R., Burdet, E., & Kawato, M. (2007). Endpoint stiffness of the arm is directionally tuned to instability in the environment. Journal of Neuroscience, 27(29), 7705-7716. (link to pdf of article)


It has been shown that humans are able to selectively control the endpoint impedance of their arms when moving in an unstable environment. However, directional instability was only examined for the case in which the main contribution was from coactivation of biarticular muscles. The goal of this study was to examine whether, in general, the CNS activates the sets of muscles that contribute to selective control of impedance in particular directions. Subjects performed reaching movements in three differently oriented unstable environments generated by a robotic manipulandum. After subjects had learned to make relatively straight reaching movements in the unstable force field, the endpoint stiffness of the limb was measured at the midpoint of the movements. For each force field, the endpoint stiffness increased in a specific direction, whereas there was little change in stiffness in the orthogonal direction. The increase in stiffness was oriented along the direction of instability in the environment, which caused the major axis of the stiffness ellipse to rotate toward the instability in the environment. This study confirms that the CNS is able to control the endpoint impedance of the limbs and selectively adapt it to the environment. Furthermore, it supports the idea that the CNS incorporates an impedance controller that acts to ensure stability, reduce movement variability, and reduce metabolic cost.