We used the framework of the equilibrium-point hypothesis (in its updated form based on the notion of referent configuration) to investigate the multi-digit synergies at two levels of a hypothetical hierarchy involved in prehensile actions. Synergies were analyzed at the thumb-virtual finger (VF) level (VF is an imaginary digit with the mechanical action equivalent to that of the four actual fingers) and at the individual finger level. The subjects performed very quick vertical movements of a handle into a target. A load could be attached off-center to provide a pronation or supination torque. In a few trials, the handle was unexpectedly fixed to the table and the digits slipped off the sensors. In such trials, the hand stopped at a higher vertical position and rotated into pronation or supination depending on the expected torque. The aperture showed non-monotonic changes with a large, fast decrease and further increase, ending up with a smaller distance between the thumb and the fingers as compared to unperturbed trials. Multi-digit synergies were quantified using indices of co-variation between digit forces and moments of force across unperturbed trials. Prior to the lifting action, high synergy indices were observed at the individual finger level while modest indices were observed at the thumb-VF level. During the lifting action, the synergies at the individual finger level disappeared while the synergy indices became higher at the thumb-VF level. The results support the basic premise that, within a given task, setting a referent configuration may be described with a few referent values of variables that influence the equilibrium state, to which the system is attracted. Moreover, the referent configuration hypothesis can help interpret the data related to the trade-off between synergies at different hierarchical levels.
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