Refractoriness in Sustained Visuo-Manual Control: Is the Refractory Duration Intrinsic or Does It Depend on External System Properties?

Cornelis van de Kamp*, Peter J. Gawthrop, Henrik Gollee, Ian D. Loram

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)


Researchers have previously adopted the double stimulus paradigm to study refractoriness in human neuromotor control. Currently, refractoriness, such as the Psychological Refractory Period (PRP) has only been quantified in discrete movement conditions. Whether refractoriness and the associated serial ballistic hypothesis generalises to sustained control tasks has remained open for more than sixty years. Recently, a method of analysis has been presented that quantifies refractoriness in sustained control tasks and discriminates intermittent (serial ballistic) from continuous control. Following our recent demonstration that continuous control of an unstable second order system (i.e. balancing a 'virtual' inverted pendulum through a joystick interface) is unnecessary, we ask whether refractoriness of substantial duration (~200 ms) is evident in sustained visual-manual control of external systems. We ask whether the refractory duration (i) is physiologically intrinsic, (ii) depends upon system properties like the order (0, 1st, and 2nd) or stability, (iii) depends upon target jump direction (reversal, same direction). Thirteen participants used discrete movements (zero order system) as well as more sustained control activity (1st and 2nd order systems) to track unpredictable step-sequence targets. Results show a substantial refractory duration that depends upon system order (250, 350 and 550 ms for 0, 1st and 2nd order respectively, n = 13, p<0.05), but not stability. In sustained control refractoriness was only found when the target reverses direction. In the presence of time varying actuators, systems and constraints, we propose that central refractoriness is an appropriate control mechanism for accommodating online optimization delays within the neural circuitry including the more variable processing times of higher order (complex) input-output relations.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1002843
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes


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