Recently, we demonstrated that humans can learn to make accurate movements in an unstable environment by controlling magnitude, shape, and orientation of the endpoint impedance. Although previous studies of human motor learning suggest that the brain acquires an inverse dynamics model of the novel environment, it is not known whether this control mechanism is operative in unstable environments. We compared learning of multijoint arm movements in a "velocity-dependent force field" (VF), which interacted with the arm in a stable manner, and learning in a "divergent force field" (DF), where the interaction was unstable. The characteristics of error evolution were markedly different in the 2 fields. The direction of trajectory error in the DF alternated to the left and right during the early stage of learning; that is, signed error was inconsistent from movement to movement and could not have guided learning of an inverse dynamics model. This contrasted sharply with trajectory error in the VF, which was initially biased and decayed in a manner that was consistent with rapid feedback error learning. EMG recorded before and after learning in the DF and VF are also consistent with different learning and control mechanisms for adapting to stable and unstable dynamics, that is, inverse dynamics model formation and impedance control. We also investigated adaptation to a rotated DF to examine the interplay between inverse dynamics model formation and impedance control. Our results suggest that an inverse dynamics model can function in parallel with an impedance controller to compensate for consistent perturbing force in unstable environments.
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