Grip-force responses to unanticipated object loading: load direction reveals body- and gravity-referenced intrinsic task variables

Exp Brain Res. 1996 Jun;110(1):142-50. doi: 10.1007/BF00241383.


Humans preserve grasp stability by automatically regulating the grip forces when loads are applied tangentially to the grip surfaces of a manipulandum held in a precision grip. The effects of the direction of the load force in relation to the palm, trunk, and gravity were investigated in blindfolded subjects. Controlled, tangential load-forces were delivered in an unpredictable manner to the grip surface in contact with the index finger either in the distal and proximal directions (away from and toward the palm) or in the ulnar and radial directions (transverse to the palm). The hand was oriented in: (1) a standard position, with the forearm extended horizontally and anteriorly in intermediate pronosupination; (2) an inverted position, reversing the direction of radial and ulnar loads in relation to gravity; and (3) a horizontally rotated position, in which distal loads were directed toward the trunk. The amplitude of the grip-force responses (perpendicular to the grip surface) varied with the direction of load in a manner reflecting frictional anisotropies at the digit-object interface; that is, the subjects automatically scaled the grip responses to provide similar safety margins against frictional slips. For all hand positions, the time from onset of load increase to start of the grip-force increase was shorter for distal loads, which tended to pull the object out of the hand, than for proximal loads. Furthermore, this latency was shorter for loads in the direction of gravity, regardless of hand position. Thus, shorter latencies were observed when frictional forces alone opposed the load, while longer latencies occurred when gravity also opposed the load or when the more proximal parts of the digits and palm were positioned in the path of the load. These latency effects were due to different processing delays in the central nervous system and may reflect the preparation of a default response in certain critical directions. The response to loads in other directions would incur delays required to implement a new frictional scaling and a different muscle activation pattern to counteract the load forces. We conclude that load direction, referenced to gravity and to the hand's geometry, represents intrinsic task variables in the automatic processes that maintain a stable grasp on objects subjected to unpredictable load forces. In contrast, the grip-force safety margin against frictional slips did not vary systematically with respect to these task variables. Instead, the magnitude of the grip-force responses varied across load direction and hand orientation according to frictional differences providing similar safety margins supporting grasp stability.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Evoked Potentials, Somatosensory / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gravitation*
  • Hand
  • Hand Strength*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Stress, Mechanical