Moving smoothly is generally considered as a higher-order goal of motor control and moving jerkily as a witness of clumsiness or pathology, yet many common and well-controlled movements (e.g., tracking movements) have irregular velocity profiles with widespread fluctuations. The origin and nature of these fluctuations have been associated with the operation of an intermittent process but in fact remain poorly understood. Here we studied velocity fluctuations during slow movements, using combined experimental and theoretical tools. We recorded arm movement trajectories in a group of healthy participants performing back-and-forth movements at different speeds, and we analyzed velocity profiles in terms of series of segments (portions of velocity between 2 minima). We found that most of the segments were smooth (i.e., corresponding to a biphasic acceleration) and had constant duration irrespective of movement speed and linearly increasing amplitude with movement speed. We accounted for these observations with an optimal feedback control model driven by a staircase goal position signal in the presence of sensory noise. Our study suggests that one and the same control process can explain the production of fast and slow movements, i.e., fast movements emerge from the immediate tracking of a global goal position and slow movements from the successive tracking of intermittently updated intermediate goal positions. NEW & NOTEWORTHY We show in experiments and modeling that slow movements could result from the brain tracking a sequence of via points regularly distributed in time and space. Accordingly, slow movements would differ from fast movement by the nature of the guidance and not by the nature of control. This result could help in understanding the origin and nature of slow and segmented movements frequently observed in brain disorders.
Keywords: arm movement; intermittent control; modeling.