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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Multiple systems for motor skill learning

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Abstract Motor learning is a ubiquitous feature of human competence. This review focuses on two particular classes of model tasks for studying skill acquisition. The serial reaction time (SRT) task is used to probe how people learn sequences of actions, while adaptation in the context of visuomotor or force field perturbations serves to illustrate how preexisting movements are recalibrated in novel environments. These tasks highlight important issues regarding the representational changes that occur during the course of motor learning. One important theme is that distinct mechanisms vary in their information processing costs during learning and performance. Fast learning processes may require few trials to produce large changes in performance but impose demands on cognitive resources. Slower processes are limited in their ability to integrate complex information but minimally demanding in terms of attention or processing resources. The representations derived from fast systems may be accessible to conscious processing and provide a relatively greater measure of flexibility, while the representations derived from slower systems are more inflexible and automatic in their behavior. In exploring these issues, we focus on how multiple neural systems may interact and compete during the acquisition and consolidation of new behaviors. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. This article is categorized under: Psychology > Motor Skill and Performance

The serial reaction time task. Stimuli corresponding to one of a discrete number of actions such as manual button presses are presented one at a time. With practice, participants are faster to respond when the stimuli follow a repeating sequence compared to when selected at random. The three trials here correspond to the first three elements of either the sequence on the left or right. Unambiguous contingencies (i.e., ‘3’ always follows ‘1’) are learned even when attention is divided by a concurrent secondary task. The individual elements are ambiguous in the sequence on the right. The context or higher order associations can be used to predict the next action. Such sequences are difficult to learn when attention is distracted.

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Visuomotor adaptation. (a) The participant is instructed to reach to the illuminated target (target 2). The hand is not visible, and feedback for the movement is indicated by a cursor. Successful movements are those that result in the cursor arriving at the correct target. With the introduction of a 45° counterclockwise rotation, previously correct movements to target 2 will result in the cursor arriving near target 1. (b) After a series of trials, a visual rotation is introduced by rotating the cursor feedback 45° in the counterclockwise direction. Participants gradually recalibrate their movement such that the movement heading is rotated in the clockwise direction. When the rotation is turned off, an aftereffect is observed with error in the opposite direction. This washes out over subsequent trials. (c) Minimal error is observed on the initial learning trials when participants are instructed to use a clockwise compensation strategy that offsets the rotation [i.e., aiming at target 3 in panel(a)]. But even in the presence of this strategic correction, movements are again recalibrated in the clockwise direction, which degrades performance over time. When the rotation is removed and participants are told to cease using the strategy, a significant aftereffect is observed. Implicit recalibration occurs even when the strategy results in initially ‘correct’ movements.

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