Human control of an inverted pendulum: Is continuous control necessary? Is intermittent control effective? Is intermittent control physiological?

ID Loram, H Gollee, Martin Lakie, PJ Gawthrop

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

155 Citations (Scopus)


Non-technical summary Homeostasis, the physiological control of variables such as body position, is founded on negative feedback mechanisms. The default understanding, consistent with a wealth of knowledge related to peripheral reflexes, is that feedback mechanisms controlling body position act continuously. For more than fifty years, it has been assumed that sustained control of position is best interpreted using continuous paradigms from engineering control theory such as those which regulate speed in a vehicle 'cruise control' system. Using a joystick to control an unstable load that falls over like a person fainting, we show that control using intermittent gentle taps is natural, more effective and robust to unexpected changes than continuous hand contact, works best with two taps per second, and can explain the upper frequency limit of control by both methods. Serial ballistic control, limited to an optimum rate, provides a new physiological paradigm for interpreting sustained control of posture and movement.Human motor control is often explained in terms of engineering 'servo' theory. Recently, continuous, optimal control using internal models has emerged as a leading paradigm for voluntary movement. However, these engineering paradigms are designed for high bandwidth, inflexible, consistent systems whereas human control is low bandwidth and flexible using noisy sensors and actuators. By contrast, engineering intermittent control was designed for bandwidth-limited applications. Our general interest is whether intermittent rather than continuous control is generic to human motor control. Currently, it would be assumed that continuous control is the superior and physiologically natural choice for controlling unstable loads, for example as required for maintaining human balance. Using visuo-manual tracking of an unstable load, we show that control using gentle, intermittent taps is entirely natural and effective. The gentle tapping method resulted in slightly superior position control and velocity minimisation, a reduced feedback time delay, greater robustness to changing actuator gain and equal or greater linearity with respect to the external disturbance. Control was possible with a median contact rate of 0.8 +/- 0.3 s-1. However, when optimising position or velocity regulation, a modal contact rate of 2 s-1 was observed. This modal rate was consistent with insignificant disturbance-joystick coherence beyond 1-2 Hz in both tapping and continuous contact methods. For this load, these results demonstrate a motor control process of serial ballistic trajectories limited to an optimum rate of 2 s-1. Consistent with theoretical reasoning, our results suggest that intermittent open loop action is a natural consequence of human physiology.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)307-324
Number of pages18
JournalThe Journal of Physiology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2011


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