Intermittent control: a computational theory of human control

P Gawthrop, I Loram, Martin Lakie, H Gollee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

138 Citations (Scopus)


The paradigm of continuous control using internal models has advanced understanding of human motor control. However, this paradigm ignores some aspects of human control, including intermittent feedback, serial ballistic control, triggered responses and refractory periods. It is shown that event-driven intermittent control provides a framework to explain the behaviour of the human operator under a wider range of conditions than continuous control. Continuous control is included as a special case, but sampling, system matched hold, an intermittent predictor and an event trigger allow serial open-loop trajectories using intermittent feedback. The implementation here may be described as "continuous observation, intermittent action". Beyond explaining unimodal regulation distributions in common with continuous control, these features naturally explain refractoriness and bimodal stabilisation distributions observed in double stimulus tracking experiments and quiet standing, respectively. Moreover, given that human control systems contain significant time delays, a biological-cybernetic rationale favours intermittent over continuous control: intermittent predictive control is computationally less demanding than continuous predictive control. A standard continuous-time predictive control model of the human operator is used as the underlying design method for an event-driven intermittent controller. It is shown that when event thresholds are small and sampling is regular, the intermittent controller can masquerade as the underlying continuous-time controller and thus, under these conditions, the continuous-time and intermittent controller cannot be distinguished. This explains why the intermittent control hypothesis is consistent with the continuous control hypothesis for certain experimental conditions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-51
Number of pages21
JournalBiological Cybernetics
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2011


  • Human balancing
  • Human operator
  • Intermittent control
  • Predictive control
  • Optimal control


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