Stiffness as a control factor for object manipulation

J Neurophysiol. 2019 Aug 1;122(2):707-720. doi: 10.1152/jn.00372.2018. Epub 2019 Jun 26.


During manipulation, force is exerted with the expectation that an object will move in an intended manner. This prediction is a learned coordination between force and movement. Mechanically, impedance is a way to describe this coordination, and object interaction could be anticipated by setting impedance before the hand moves the object. This strategy would be especially important at the end of a reach, because feedback is ineffective for rapid force changes. Since mechanical impedance is not subject to the time delays of feedback, it can, if set properly, produce the desired motion on impact. We examined this possibility by instructing subjects to move a handle to a specific target position along a track. The handle was locked in place until the subject exerted enough force to cross a threshold; the handle was then released abruptly to move along the track. We hypothesized that this ballistic release task would encourage subjects to modify impedance in anticipation of the upcoming movement and found that one component of impedance, stiffness, varied in a way that matched the behavioral demands of the task. Analysis suggests that this stiffness was set before the handle moved and governed the subsequent motion. We also found separate components of muscle activity that corresponded to stiffness and to changes in force. Our results show that subjects used a robust and efficient strategy to coordinate force and displacement by modulating muscle activity in a way that was behaviorally relevant in the task.NEW & NOTEWORTHY The arm can behave like a spring, and this mechanical behavior can be advantageous in situations requiring rapid changes in force and/or displacement. Selection of a proper "virtual" spring before the occurrence of a rapid transient could facilitate a desired responsive movement. We show that these spring-like arm mechanics, set in anticipation of an instantaneous force change, function as an efficient strategy to control movement when feedback is ineffective.

Keywords: impedance control; motor control; object manipulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anticipation, Psychological / physiology*
  • Arm / physiology*
  • Biomechanical Phenomena / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Young Adult