Haptic Feedback Enhances Rhythmic Motor Control By Reducing Variability, Not Convergence Rate


M. M. Ankarali, H. T. Sen, A. De, A. M. Okamura, and N. Cowan, “Haptic Feedback Enhances Rhythmic Motor Control By Reducing Variability, Not Convergence Rate,” Journal of Neurophysiology, pp. jn.00140.2013, 2013.

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Stability and performance during rhythmic motor behaviors such as locomotion are critical for survival across taxa: falling down would bode well for neither cheetah nor gazelle. Little is known about how haptic feedback, particularly during discrete events such as the heel-strike event during walking, enhances rhythmic behavior. To determine the effect of haptic cues on rhythmic motor performance, we investigated a virtual paddle juggling behavior, analogous to bouncing a table tennis ball on a paddle. Here, we show that a force impulse to the hand at the moment of ball-paddle collision categorically improves performance over visual feedback alone, not by regulating the rate of convergence to steady state (e.g. via higher gain feedback or modifying the steady-state hand motion), but rather by reducing cycle-to-cycle variability. This suggests that the timing and state cues afforded by haptic feedback decreases the nervous system's uncertainty of the ball's state to enable more accurate control, but that the feedback gain itself is unaltered. This decrease in variability leads to a substantial increase in the mean first passage time, a measure of the long-term metastability of a stochastic dynamical system. Rhythmic tasks such as locomotion and juggling involve intermittent contact with the environment (i.e. hybrid transitions), and the timing of such transitions is generally easy to sense via haptic feedback. This timing information may improve metastability, equating to less frequent falls or other failures depending on the task.