Sensory Feedback Reduces Individuality by Increasing Variability within Subjects

Curr Biol. 2015 Oct 19;25(20):2672-6. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.044. Epub 2015 Oct 1.


Behavioral variability is ubiquitous [1-6], yet variability is more than just noise. Indeed, humans exploit their individual motor variability to improve tracing and reaching tasks [7]. What controls motor variability? Increasing the variability of sensory input, or applying force perturbations during a task, increases task variability [8, 9]. Sensory feedback may also increase task-irrelevant variability [9, 10]. In contrast, sensory feedback during locust flight or to multiple cortical areas just prior to task performance decreases variability during task-relevant motor behavior [11, 12]. Thus, how sensory feedback affects both task-relevant and task-irrelevant motor outputs must be understood. Furthermore, since motor control is studied in populations, the effects of sensory feedback on variability must also be understood within and across subjects. For example, during locomotion, each step may vary within and across individuals, even when behavior is normalized by step cycle duration [13]. Our previous work demonstrated that motor components that matter for effective behavior show less individuality [14]. Is sensory feedback the mechanism for reducing individuality? We analyzed durations and relative timings of motor pools within swallowing motor patterns in the presence and absence of sensory feedback and related these motor program components to behavior. Here, at the level of identified motor neurons, we show that sensory feedback to motor program components highly correlated with behavioral efficacy reduces variability across subjects but-surprisingly-increases variability within subjects. By controlling intrinsic, individual differences in motor neuronal activity, sensory feedback provides each subject access to a common solution space.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Aplysia / physiology*
  • Feedback, Sensory*
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Individuality
  • Motor Activity
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Task Performance and Analysis