Discovering affordances that determine the spatial structure of reach-to-grasp movements

Exp Brain Res. 2011 May;211(1):145-60. doi: 10.1007/s00221-011-2659-2. Epub 2011 Apr 12.


Extensive research has identified the affordances used to guide actions, as originally conceived by Gibson (Perceiving, acting, and knowing: towards an ecological psychology. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, 1977; The ecological approach to visual perception. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, 1979/1986). We sought to discover the object affordance properties that determine the spatial structure of reach-to-grasp movements--movements that entail both collision avoidance and targeting. First, we constructed objects that presented a significant collision hazard and varied properties relevant to targeting, namely, object width and size of contact surface. Participants reached-to-grasp objects at three speeds (slow, normal, and fast). In Experiment 1, we explored a "stop" task where participants grasped the objects without moving them. In Experiment 2, we studied "fly-through" movements where the objects were lifted. We discovered the object affordance properties that produced covariance in the spatial structure of reaches-to-grasp. Maximum grasp aperture (MGA) reflected affordances determined by collision avoidance. Terminal grasp aperture (TGA)--when the hand stops moving but prior to finger contact--reflected affordances relevant to targeting accuracy. A model with a single free parameter predicted the prehensile spatial structure and provided a functional affordance-based account of that structure. In Experiment 3, we investigated a "slam" task where participants reached-to-grasp flat rectangular objects on a tabletop. The affordance structure of this task was found to eliminate the collision risk and thus reduced safety margins in MGA and TGA to zero for larger objects. The results emphasize the role of affordances in determining the structure and scaling of reach-to-grasp actions. Finally, we report evidence supporting the opposition vector as an appropriate unit of analysis in the study of grasping and a unit of action that maps directly to affordance properties.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Hand / physiology*
  • Hand Strength / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Spatial Behavior / physiology*
  • Young Adult