Unveiling intermittency in the control of quiet upright standing: Beyond automatic behavior

John F. Stins*, Melvyn Roerdink

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The control of posture, as in quiet upright standing, is distributed among postural reflexes and higher (cortical) centers. According to the theory of "intermittent control," the control of posture involves a rapid succession of brief periods of postural stability, during which the body dwells relatively motionless in a particular posture, and postural instability, during which the body rapidly transits to a new stable point. This theory assumes a combination of stiffness control, keeping the body in the same position, and top-down ballistic control, moving the body to a new reference position. We tested the prediction that exerting ballistic control consumes more attention, relative to stiffness control, using variations in reaction time as our index of attention load. Slower reactions to external stimulus events were expected if these events happen to coincide with ballistic control regimes compared to stiffness regimes, as unveiled from local features of the posturogram. Thirty-two participants stood on a force plate, and were instructed to press a hand-held button as soon as they heard a stimulus tone. About 40 stimuli were presented at random instances during a 3-min trial. Postural control regimes were characterized using sway-density analysis for each stimulus-response interval, by computing local dwell times from the corresponding center-of-pressure samples. We correlated stimulus-response durations with the corresponding local dwell times, and also with local velocity and local eccentricity (distance from the origin). As predicted, an overall negative correlation was observed, meaning that shorter dwell times are associated with longer stimulus-response intervals, as well as a positive correlation with local center-of-pressure velocity. The correlation between reaction times and local eccentricity was not significant. Thus, by mapping stimulus-response intervals to local center-of-pressure features we demonstrated attentional fluctuations in the control of quiet upright standing, thereby validating a core assumption underlying the notion of intermittent postural control.

Original languageEnglish
Article number850
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalFrontiers in Neurology
Issue numberOctober
Publication statusPublished - 10 Oct 2018


  • Attention
  • Dual-tasking
  • Intermittency
  • Postural control
  • Postural sway
  • Reaction time
  • Sway density curve


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