S-Shaped Motor Learning and Nonequilibrium Phase Transitions

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S-Shaped change in performance outcome has long been considered to be a pathway of motor learning, but there is little or no evidence for it. The experiment investigated the hypothesis that S-shaped motor learning as reflected in the task outcome is a product of a transition in the movement coordination dynamics as a function of practice acting as a control parameter. Young adult participants practiced the roller ball task that required learning the transition of a coordination mode to preserve and enhance the motion of a rotating ball to transition from task failure to success. There were 50 practice trials per day for as many practice days (3–20) as required for each participant to reach the task criterion of success that was followed 1 week later by a retention test. All participants improved their task performance with practice but there were subgroups of patterns of change including S-shaped learning. The enhanced variability during the transition supported the interpretation that the S-shaped learning outcome is reflective of a saddle-node bifurcation or first-order nonequilibrium transition. The learning of a new pattern of movement coordination is a different process from learning to scale an already producible coordination mode to new task demands.

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