Differential control of task and null space variability in response to changes in task difficulty when learning a bimanual steering task
The presence of motor redundancy means that movement variability can be split into a ‘task-space’ component that affects task performance, and a ‘null space’ component which has no effect on task performance. While the control of task-space variability during learning is essential, because it is directly linked to performance, how the nervous system controls null space variability during learning has not been well understood. One factor that has been hypothesized to govern the change in null space variability with learning is task difficulty, but this has not been directly tested. Here, we examined how task difficulty influences the change in null space variability with learning. Healthy, college-aged participants (N = 36) performed a bimanual steering task, where they steered a cursor through a smooth W-shaped track of a certain width as quickly as possible while attempting to keep the cursor within the track. Task difficulty was altered by changing the track width and participants were split into one of the three groups based on the track width that they practiced on—wide, narrow, or progressive (where the width of the track progressively changed from wide to narrow over practice). The redundancy in this task arose from the fact that the position of the cursor was defined as the average position of the two hands. Results showed that movement time depended on task difficulty, but all groups were able to decrease their movement time with practice. Learning was associated with a reduction in null space variability in all groups, but critically, there was no effect of task difficulty. Further analyses showed that while the task-space variability showed an expected speed–accuracy tradeoff with movement time, the null space variability showed a qualitatively different pattern. These results suggest differential control of task and null space variability in response to changes in task difficulty with learning, and may reflect a strong preference to minimize overall movement variability during learning.
KeywordsVariability Synergy Null space Task difficulty Bimanual UCM
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants nos. 1703735 and 1823889.
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