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Critical adaptive control may cause scaling laws in human behavior

When humans perform closed-loop control tasks like in upright standing or while balancing a stick, their behavior exhibits non-Gaussian fluctuations with long-tailed distributions [1, 2]. The origin of these fluctuations is not known, but their statistics suggests a fine-tuning of the underlying system to a critical point [3]. We investigated whether self-tuning may be caused by the annihilation of local predictive information due to success of control [4]. We found that this mechanism can lead to critical noise amplification, a fundamental principle that produces complex dynamics even in very low-dimensional state estimation tasks. It generally emerges when an unstable dynamical system becomes stabilized by an adaptive controller that has a finite memory [5]. It is also compatible with control based on optimal recursive Bayesian estimation of a varying hidden parameter. Starting from this theory, we developed a realistic model of adaptive closed-loop control by including constraints on memory and delays. To test this model, we performed psychophysical experiments where humans balanced an unstable target on a computer screen. It turned out, that the model reproduces the long tails of the distributions together with other characteristics of the human control dynamics. Fine-tuning the model to match the experimental dynamics identifies parameters characterizing a subjects control system which can be independently tested. Our results suggest that the nervous system involved in closed-loop motor control nearly optimally estimates system parameters on-line from very short epochs of past observations.


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Correspondence to Felix Patzelt.

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Open Access This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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Patzelt, F., Pawelzik, K. Critical adaptive control may cause scaling laws in human behavior. BMC Neurosci 10, P17 (2009).

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  • Adaptive Controller
  • Experimental Dynamic
  • Predictive Information
  • Estimation Task
  • Psychophysical Experiment