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Facilitation of learning induced by both random and gradual visuomotor task variation

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Turnham, E., Braun, D., & Wolpert, D. (2012). Facilitation of learning induced by both random and gradual visuomotor task variation. Journal of Neurophysiology, 107(4), 1111-1122. doi:10.1152/jn.00635.2011.

Motor task variation has been shown to be a key ingredient in skill transfer, retention and structural learning. However, many studies only compare training of randomly varying tasks to either blocked or null training, and it is not clear how experiencing different non-random temporal orderings of tasks might affect meta-learning processes. Here we study learning in human subjects who experience the same set of visuomotor rotations, evenly spaced between -60° and +60°, either in a random order or in an order in which the rotation angle changed gradually. We compared subsequent learning of three test blocks of +30° → -30° → +30° rotations. The groups that underwent either random or gradual training showed significant (p<0.01) facilitation of learning in the test blocks compared to a control group who had not experienced any visuomotor rotations before. We also found that movement initiation times in the random group during the test blocks were significantly (p<0.05) lower than for the gradual or the control group. When we fit a state-space model with fast and slow learning processes to our data, we found that the differences in performance in the test block were consistent with the gradual or random task variation changing the learning and retention rates of only the fast learning process. Such adaptation of learning rates may be a key feature of ongoing meta-learning processes. Our results therefore suggest that both gradual and random task variation can induce meta-learning and that random learning has an advantage in terms of shorter initiation times, suggesting less reliance on cognitive processes.