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Should the Equilibrium Point Hypothesis (EPH) Be Considered a Scientific Theory?

Robert L. Sainburg

The purpose of this commentary is to discuss factors that limit consideration of the equilibrium point hypothesis as a scientific theory. The EPH describes control of motor neuron threshold through the variable lambda, which corresponds to a unique referent configuration for a muscle, joint, or combination of joints. One of the most compelling features of the equilibrium point hypothesis is the integration of posture and movement control into a single mechanism. While the essential core of the hypothesis is based upon spinal circuitry interacting with peripheral mechanics, the proponents have extended the theory to include the higher-level processes that generate lambda, and in doing so, imposed an injunction against the supraspinal nervous system modeling, computing, or predicting dynamics. This limitation contradicts evidence that humans take account of body and environmental dynamics in motor selection, motor control, and motor adaptation processes. A number of unresolved limitations to the EPH have been debated in the literature for many years, including whether muscle resistance to displacement, measured during movement, is adequate to support this form of control, violations in equifinality predictions, spinal circuits that alter the proposed invariant characteristic for muscles, and limitations in the description of how the complexity of spinal circuitry might be integrated to yield a unique and stable equilibrium position for a given motor neuron threshold. In addition, an important empirical limitation of EPH is the measurement of the invariant characteristic, which needs to be done under a constant central state. While there is no question that the EPH is an elegant and generative hypothesis for motor control research, the claim that this hypothesis has reached the status of a scientific theory is premature.