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  1. Humans are strikingly adept at manipulating complex objects, from tying shoelaces to cracking a bullwhip. These motor skills have highly nonlinear interactive dynamics that defy reduction into parts. Yet, despite advances in data recording and processing, experiments in motor neuroscience still prioritize experimental reduction over realistic complexity. This study embraced the fully unconstrained behaviour of hitting a target with a 1.6-m bullwhip, both in rhythmic and discrete fashion. Adopting an object-centered approach to test the hypothesis that skilled movement simplifies the whip dynamics, the whip's evolution was characterized in relation to performance error and hand speed. Despite widely differing individual strategies, both discrete and rhythmic styles featured a cascade-like unfolding of the whip. Whip extension and orientation at peak hand speed predicted performance error, at least in the rhythmic style, suggesting that humans accomplished the task by setting initial conditions. These insights may inform further studies on human and robot control of complex objects. 
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  4. While the study of unconstrained movements has revealed important features of neural control, generalizing those insights to more sophisticated object manipulation is challenging. Humans excel at physical interaction with objects, even when those objects introduce complex dynamics and kinematic constraints. This study examined humans turning a horizontal planar crank (radius 10.29 cm) at their preferred and three instructed speeds (with visual feedback), both in clockwise and counterclockwise directions. To explore the role of neuromechanical dynamics, the instructed speeds covered a wide range: fast (near the limits of performance), medium (near preferred speed), and very slow (rendering dynamic effects negligible). Because kinematically constrained movements involve significant physical interaction, disentangling neural control from the influences of biomechanics presents a challenge. To address it, we modeled the interactive dynamics to “subtract off” peripheral biomechanics from observed force and kinematic data, thereby estimating aspects of underlying neural action that may be expressed in terms of motion. We demonstrate the value of this method: remarkably, an approximately elliptical path emerged, and speed minima coincided with curvature maxima, similar to what is seen in unconstrained movements, even though the hand moved at nearly constant speed along a constant-curvature path. These findings suggest that the neural controller takes advantage of peripheral biomechanics to simplify physical interaction. As a result, patterns seen in unconstrained movements persist even when physical interaction prevents their expression in hand kinematics. The reemergence of a speed-curvature relation indicates that it is due, at least in part, to neural processes that emphasize smoothness and predictability. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Physically interacting with kinematic constraints is commonplace in everyday actions. We report a study of humans turning a crank, a circular constraint that imposes constant hand path curvature and hence should suppress variations of hand speed due to the power-law speed-curvature relation widely reported for unconstrained motions. Remarkably, we found that, when peripheral biomechanical factors are removed, a speed-curvature relation reemerges, indicating that it is, at least in part, of neural origin. 
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  5. Humans have an astonishing ability to extract hidden information from the movements of others. For example, even with limited kinematic information, humans can distinguish between biological and nonbiological motion, identify the age and gender of a human demonstrator, and recognize what action a human demonstrator is performing. It is unknown, however, whether they can also estimate hidden mechanical properties of another’s limbs simply by observing their motions. Strictly speaking, identifying an object’s mechanical properties, such as stiffness, requires contact. With only motion information, unambiguous measurements of stiffness are fundamentally impossible, since the same limb motion can be generated with an infinite number of stiffness values. However, we show that humans can readily estimate the stiffness of a simulated limb from its motion. In three experiments, we found that participants linearly increased their rating of arm stiffness as joint stiffness parameters in the arm controller increased. This was remarkable since there was no physical contact with the simulated limb. Moreover, participants had no explicit knowledge of how the simulated arm was controlled. To successfully map nontrivial changes in multijoint motion to changes in arm stiffness, participants likely drew on prior knowledge of human neuromotor control. Having an internal representation consistent with the behavior of the controller used to drive the simulated arm implies that this control policy competently captures key features of veridical biological control. Finding that humans can extract latent features of neuromotor control from kinematics also provides new insight into how humans interpret the motor actions of others. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Humans can visually perceive another’s overt motion, but it is unknown whether they can also perceive the hidden dynamic properties of another’s limbs from their motions. Here, we show that humans can correctly infer changes in limb stiffness from nontrivial changes in multijoint limb motion without force information or explicit knowledge of the underlying limb controller. Our findings suggest that humans presume others control motor behavior in such a way that limb stiffness influences motion. 
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