When we learn a sensorimotor task, what determines how our learning generalizes? This coming Tuesday, Sept. 26th, at Sensorimotor Journal Club, Flip Sabes will present an article on a study that provides some answers to this question:
Krakauer, J. W., Mazzoni, P., Ghazizadeh, A., Ravindran, R., & Shadmehr, R. (2006). Generalization of motor learning depends on the history of prior action. PLoS Biology, 4(10), e316. (link to pdf of this article)
Generalization of motor learning refers to our ability to apply what has been learned in one context to other contexts. When generalization is beneficial, it is termed transfer, and when it is detrimental, it is termed interference. Insight into the mechanism of generalization may be acquired from understanding why training transfers in some contexts but not others. However, identifying relevant contextual cues has proven surprisingly difficult, perhaps because the search has mainly been for cues that are explicit. We hypothesized instead that a relevant contextual cue is an implicit memory of action with a particular body part. To test this hypothesis we considered a task in which participants learned to control motion of a cursor under visuomotor rotation in two contexts: by moving their hand through motion of their shoulder and elbow, or through motion of their wrist. Use of these contextual cues led to three observations: First, in naive participants, learning in the wrist context was much faster than in the arm context. Second, generalization was asymmetric so that arm training benefited subsequent wrist training, but not vice versa. Third, in people who had prior wrist training, generalization from the arm to the wrist was blocked. That is, prior wrist training appeared to prevent both the interference and transfer that subsequent arm training should have caused. To explain the data, we posited that the learner collected statistics of contextual history: all upper arm movements also move the hand, but occasionally we move our hands without moving the upper arm. In a Bayesian framework, history of limb segment use strongly affects parameter uncertainty, which is a measure of the covariance of the contextual cues. This simple Bayesian prior dictated a generalization pattern that largely reproduced all three findings. For motor learning, generalization depends on context, which is determined by the statistics of how we have previously used the various parts of our limbs.