We consider the properties of motor components, also known as synergies, arising from a computational theory (in the sense of Marr, 1982) of optimal motor behavior. An actor's goals were formalized as cost functions, and the optimal control signals minimizing the cost functions were calculated. Optimal synergies were derived from these optimal control signals using a variant of nonnegative matrix factorization. This was done using two different simulated two-joint arms—an arm controlled directly by torques applied at the joints and an arm in which forces were applied by muscles—and two types of motor tasks—reaching tasks and via-point tasks.

Studies of the motor synergies reveal several interesting findings. First, optimal motor actions can be generated by summing a small number of scaled and time-shifted motor synergies, indicating that optimal movements can be planned in a low-dimensional space by using optimal motor synergies as motor primitives or building blocks. Second, some optimal synergies are task independent—they arise regardless of the task context—whereas other synergies are task dependent—they arise in the context of one task but not in the contexts of other tasks. Biological organisms use a combination of task-independent and task-dependent synergies. Our work suggests that this may be an efficient combination for generating optimal motor actions from motor primitives. Third, optimal motor actions can be rapidly acquired by learning new linear combinations of optimal motor synergies. This result provides further evidence that optimal motor synergies are useful motor primitives. Fourth, synergies with similar properties arise regardless if one uses an arm controlled by torques applied at the joints or an arm controlled by muscles, suggesting that synergies, when considered in “movement space,” are more a reflection of task goals and constraints than of fine details of the underlying hardware.

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