Motor control is the process by which humans and animals use their neuromuscular system to activate and coordinate the muscles and limbs involved in the performance of a motor skill. Fundamentally, it is the integration of sensory information, both about the world and the current state of the body, to determine the appropriate set of muscle forces and joint activations to generate some desired movement or action. This process requires cooperative interaction between the central nervous system and the musculoskeletal system, and is thus a problem of information processing, coordination, mechanics, physics, and cognition. Successful motor control is crucial to interacting with the world, not only determining action capabilities, but regulating balance and stability as well.
The organization and production of movement is a complex problem, so the study of motor control has been approached from a wide range of disciplines, including psychology, cognitive science, biomechanics and neuroscience. While the modern study of motor control is an increasingly interdisciplinary field, research questions have historically been defined as either physiological or psychological, depending on whether the focus is on physical and biological properties, or organizational and structural rules. Areas of study related to motor control are motor coordination, motor learning, and signal processing.
While synergies represent coordination derived from peripheral interactions of motor components, motor programs are specific, pre-structured motor activation patterns that are generated and executed by a central controller (in the case of a biological organism, the brain). They represent at top-down approach to motor coordination, rather than the bottom-up approach offered by synergies. Motor programs are executed in an open-loop manner, although sensory information is most likely used to sense the current state of the organism and determine the appropriate goals. However, once the program has been executed, it cannot be altered online by additional sensory information.
Evidence for the existence of motor programs comes from studies of rapid movement execution and the difficulty associated with changing those movements once they have been initiated. For example, people who are asked to make fast arm swings have extreme difficulty in halting that movement when provided with a “STOP” signal after the movement has been initiated. Interestingly, this reversal difficulty persists even if the stop signal is presented after the initial “GO” signal but before the movement actually begins. This research suggests that once selection and execution of a motor program begins, it must run to completion before another action can be taken. This effect has been found even when the movement that is being executed by a particular motor program is prevented from occurring at all. People who attempt to execute particular movements (such as pushing with the arm), but unknowingly have the action of their body arrested before any movement can actually take place, show the same muscle activation patterns (including stabilizing and support activation that does not actually generate the movement) as when they are allowed to complete their intended action.
Although the evidence for motor programs seems persuasive, there have been several important criticisms of the theory. The first is the problem of storage. If each movement an organism could generate requires its own motor program, it would seem necessary for that organism to possess an unlimited repository of such programs and where these would be kept is not clear. Aside from the enormous memory requirements such a facility would take, no motor program storage area in the brain has yet been identified. The second problem is concerned with novelty in movement. If a specific motor program is required for any particular movement, it is not clear how one would ever produce a novel movement. At best, any new movement would have to be practiced extensively before it could be executed with any success, and at worst no new movements would be possible because no motor program would ever exist. These difficulties have led to a more nuanced notion of motor programs known as generalized motor programs. A generalized motor program is a program for a particular class of action, rather than a specific movement. This program is parameterized by the context of the environment and the current state of the organism.