We address the nature of unintentional changes in performance in two papers. This first paper tested a hypothesis that unintentional changes in performance variables during continuous tasks without visual feedback are due to two processes. First, there is a drift of the referent coordinate for the salient performance variable toward the actual coordinate of the effector. Second, there is a drift toward minimum of a cost function. We tested this hypothesis in four-finger isometric pressing tasks that required the accurate production of a combination of total moment and total force with natural and modified finger involvement. Subjects performed accurate force–moment production tasks under visual feedback, and then visual feedback was removed for some or all of the salient variables. Analytical inverse optimization was used to compute a cost function. Without visual feedback, both force and moment drifted slowly toward lower absolute magnitudes. Over 15 s, the force drop could reach 20% of its initial magnitude while moment drop could reach 30% of its initial magnitude. Individual finger forces could show drifts toward both higher and lower forces. The cost function estimated using the analytical inverse optimization reduced its value as a consequence of the drift. We interpret the results within the framework of hierarchical control with referent spatial coordinates for salient variables at each level of the hierarchy combined with synergic control of salient variables. The force drift is discussed as a natural relaxation process toward states with lower potential energy in the physical (physiological) system involved in the task.
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