Negative feedback occurs when the output of a system acts to oppose changes to the input of the system, with the result that the changes are attenuated. If the overall feedback of the system is negative, then the system will tend to be stable.
In many physical and biological systems, qualitatively different influences can oppose each other. For example, in biochemistry, one set of chemicals drives the system in a given direction, whereas another set of chemicals drives it in an opposing direction. If one, or both of these opposing influences are non-linear, equilibrium point(s) result.
In engineering, mathematics and the physical and biological sciences, common terms for the points around which the system gravitates include: attractors, stable states, eigenstates/eigenfunctions, equilibrium points, and setpoints.
Negative refers to the sign of the multiplier in mathematical models for feedback. In delta notation, − Δoutput is added to or mixed into the input. In multivariate systems, vectors help to illustrate how several influences can both partially complement and partially oppose each other.
In contrast, positive feedback is feedback in which the system responds so as to increase the magnitude of any particular perturbation, resulting in amplification of the original signal instead of stabilization. Any system where there is a net positive feedback will result in a runaway situation. Both positive and negative feedback require a feedback loop to operate.
Negative feedback is used to describe the act of reversing any discrepancy between desired and actual output.
Negative feedback was first implemented in the 16th Century with the invention of the centrifugal governor. Its operation is most easily seen in its use by James Watt to control the speed of his steam engine. Two heavy balls on an upright frame rotate at the same speed as the engine. As their speed increases they move outwards due to the centrifugal force. This causes them to lift a mechanism which closes the steam inlet valve and the engine slows. When the speed of the engine falls too far, the balls will move in the opposite direction and open the steam valve.
A simple and practical example is a thermostat. When the temperature in a heated room reaches a certain upper limit the room heating is switched off so that the temperature begins to fall. When the temperature drops to a lower limit, the heating is switched on again. Provided the limits are close to each other, a steady room temperature is maintained. Similar control mechanisms are used in cooling systems, such as an air conditioner, a refrigerator, or a freezer.
Biology and chemistry
Some biological systems exhibit negative feedback such as the baroreflex in blood pressure regulation and erythropoiesis. Many biological process (e.g., in the human anatomy) use negative feedback. Examples of this are numerous, from the regulating of body temperature, to the regulating of blood glucose levels. The disruption of feedback loops can lead to undesirable results: in the case of blood glucose levels, if negative feedback fails, the glucose levels in the blood may begin to rise dramatically, thus resulting in diabetes.
For hormone secretion regulated by the negative feedback loop: when gland X releases hormone X, this stimulates target cells to release hormone Y. When there is an excess of hormone Y, gland X "senses" this and inhibits its release of hormone X.
The negative feedback amplifier was invented by Harold Stephen Black at Bell Laboratories in 1927, and patented by him in 1934. Fundamentally, all electronic devices (e.g. vacuum tubes, bipolar transistors, MOS transistors) exhibit some nonlinear behavior. Negative feedback corrects this by trading unused gain for higher linearity (lower distortion). An amplifier with too large an open-loop gain, possibly in a specific frequency range, will additionally produce too large a feedback signal in that same range. This feedback signal, when subtracted from the original input, will act to reduce the original input, also by "too large" an amount. This "too small" input will be amplified again by the "too large" open-loop gain, creating a signal that is "just right". The net result is a flattening of the amplifier's gain over all frequencies (desensitising). Though much more accurate, amplifiers with negative feedback can become unstable if not designed correctly, causing them to oscillate. Harry Nyquist of Bell Laboratories managed to work out a theory about how to make this behaviour stable.
Negative feedback is used in this way in many types of amplification systems to stabilize and improve their operating characteristics (see e.g., operational amplifiers).
- ^ Raven, PH; Johnson, GB. Biology, Fifth Edition, Boston: Hill Companies, Inc. 1999. page 1058.
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