The role of sensory feedback in motor control depends on the nature of the signal that controls the movement. If the commands to muscles are forces, then, to reach a given position, you would need to know the current length of a muscle to know whether to apply a force to make it longer or shorter. However, if muscles can be viewed as springs that you set the rest length of, then a muscle would tend towards its commanded rest length regardless its starting position no need for proprioceptive feedback. This is the intuition behind the equilibrium point hypothesis a very influential theory of motor control for the past many years. This Wednesday, August 1st, at Sensorimotor Journal Club, I will present one of the classic papers often cited as evidence for the equilibrium point hypothesis:


Polit, A., & Bizzi, E. (1979). Characteristics of motor programs underlying arm movements in monkeys. Journal of Neurophysiology, 42(1 Pt 1), 183-194. (link to pdf of article)


1. The experiments described here are addressed at identifying some of the processes underlying arm movements in monkeys. 2. We used three adult monkeys that were trained to point to a target light with the forearm and hold at that position for about 1 s in order to obtain a reward. During the experimental sessions the monkey was seated in a primate chair and its forearm was fastened to an apparatus that permitted flexion and extension of the forearm about the elbow in the horizontal plane. 3. We tested their performance prior to and after bilateral dorsal rhizotomy (C2--T3). Forearm movements were performed without the sight of the arm both before and after the surgical intervention. In intact animals we unexpectedly displaced the arm prior to movement initiation (150--200 ms) and observed the outcome of this displacement on movement termination. Our results indicated that the arm moved accurately to the target. The same procedure was used in the deafferented monkeys, yielding qualitatively the same results; i.e., a displacement of the initial position did not affect the attainment of the intended final position. 4. These results are relevant to the question of what is being controlled by motor commands. It appears that the controlled variable is an equilibrium point resulting from the interaction of agonist and antagonist muscles. Consequently, a change in the equilibrium leads to movement and the attainment of a new posture. The fact that both intact and deafferent monkeys display essentially similar motor behavior in our highly practiced task should not obliterate the dramatic difference in motor performance that exists between intact and rhizotomized animals. In fact, the successful execution of the learned motor performance in the deafferented animal is contingent on the animal's body being in a fixed relation to the arm apparatus. Whenever we changed the usual spatial relationship between the monkey's body and the arm apparatus, the animal's pointing response to the target was inaccurate. All of our intact monkeys, in contrast, were able to compensate quickly for any variations in their accustomed position with respect to the arm apparatus. The dramatic inability of the deafferented monkey to execute accurate pointing responses in an unusual postural setting underscores the great importance of the afferent monkey to execute accurate pointing responses in an unusual postural settiing underscores the great importance of the afferent feedback. These findings suggest that, in the performance of visually evoked learned movements, one of the major functions of the afferent feedback is in the adaptive modifications of learned motor programs.