24 May 2017: Taking aim at the cognitive side of motor learning

Jordan Taylor
Department of Psychology and Princeton Neuroscience Institute
Princeton University

The most commonly cited human-specific cognitive abilities are generally language, abstract reasoning, and complex sociality. Our motor talents are often left off that list, as such abilities are generally not considered linked to higher cognition. Indeed, the field of sensorimotor learning often seems stuck in the subcortex, with the lens of research focused on cerebellar-driven implicit sensorimotor recalibration. This trend ignores a key element of human motor learning: rapid and flexible cognitive strategizing. Indeed, recent research from our lab, as well as others, has suggested that explicit cognitive strategies may play a bigger role than previously thought. In fact, we find that implicit learning is surprisingly inflexible — showing only small incremental changes that are insensitive to the task — which calls into question its relative importance in motor learning. Our findings suggest that much of motor learning, at least in the short-term, reflects a more complex, cognitive decision-making process which aids in the rapid, flexible selection of movements to achieve precise goals in distal regions of space. Accordingly, models of the multiple processes at work during motor learning, and hypotheses about the putative neural substrates underlying such processes, need to be broadened to accommodate the important contribution of cognitive strategies. Understanding how multiple neural systems contribute to learning should lead to the development of optimal neurorehabilitation protocols either designed to target impaired systems or bias performance to rely on systems that are relatively intact.