Object manip­u­la­tion or tool use is almost a uniquely human trait, said Dagmar Sternad, director of Northeastern’s Action Lab, a research group inter­ested in move­ment coor­di­na­tion. “Not only does it require cer­tain cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties but also dis­tinct motor abilities.”

Simply moving one’s own body, for instance by directing a hand toward a coffee cup, requires the orga­ni­za­tion of var­ious phys­i­o­log­ical sys­tems including the cen­tral and periph­eral ner­vous sys­tems and the mus­cu­loskeletal system.

Once the hand grasps and picks up the cup, the ques­tions become even more com­pli­cated. What if the cup is filled with liquid? At this point, the com­plexity of the con­trol problem bal­loons — the pres­ence of the liquid intro­duces non­linear fluid dynamics with the risk of a spill because of the inherent vari­ability in one’s movement.

Sternad, a pro­fessor of , biology, elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering and physics and post­doc­toral researcher C.J. Hasson are inter­ested in how we adapt our move­ment strate­gies when inter­acting with dynamic objects in the environment.

In a recent paper pub­lished in the Journal of Neu­ro­phys­i­ology, Hasson and Sternad explored the ques­tion by looking at the everyday task of manip­u­lating a cup of coffee. They show that how we adapt our move­ment strate­gies is directly related to the amount of vari­ability and reli­a­bility in our sur­round­ings and ourselves.

Because we’re humans and not machines, we’re noisy and vari­able,” said Hasson. “We can’t expect that a move­ment will unfold exactly as we planned it.”

For the study, 18 healthy par­tic­i­pants vis­ited the Action Lab to play a video game, wherein they attempted to move a vir­tual cup filled with vir­tual liquid across a large video screen. Instead of a normal video-​​game con­troller, sub­jects moved the vir­tual cup by grasping a manip­u­landum — a large robotic arm. Sim­ilar to the real-​​life sce­nario, the robot sim­u­lated the forces one would feel from the weight of the object and the sloshing of the liquid in the cup.

They asked par­tic­i­pants to move the cup across the screen within a com­fort­able time of two sec­onds, a task for which there is an infi­nite number of pos­si­bil­i­ties. You could move fast for one second and slow for one second, slow for a half second and then fast for one and a half sec­onds. The team hypoth­e­sized that par­tic­i­pants would nat­u­rally adapt a safe move­ment strategy with prac­tice — and they did.

But the most intriguing result, said Hasson, was that the size of each participant’s safety margin —or how close they let the liquid get to the edge of the cup — could be pre­dicted by how vari­able they were in their move­ments. Those with more vari­ability tended to adapt a “safer” strategy with a larger safety margin.

If you have a large safety margin and I move with a small margin, the ques­tion is, ‘Why am I more risky than you?’” Hasson said. “Well, you may find that I am much more con­sis­tent in my move­ments, so I don’t need a big safety margin. If you’re more vari­able, you need a larger safety margin.”

The results have impli­ca­tions in assessing elderly patients and patients of motor dis­or­ders such as cere­bral palsy. “If vari­ability deter­mines the move­ments that you do, maybe that’s an inter­ven­tion point,” said Sternad.

Hasson will join Northeastern’s physical-​​therapy fac­ulty in the fall. In his new role, he will look at learning and con­trol among older adults. “Increased vari­ability is a fun­da­mental prop­erty of older adults’ neu­ro­mus­cular sys­tems, and as we’ve estab­lished, that will shape their move­ment strategies.”