The neural basis of motor-skill learning

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Current Directions in Psychological Science
http://cdp.sagepub.com/ The Neural Basis of Motor-Skill Learning
Daniel B. Willingham Current Directions in Psychological Science 1999 8: 178 DOI: 10.1111/1467-8721.00042 The online version of this article can be found at: http://cdp.sagepub.com/content/8/6/178

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178

VOLUME 8, NUMBER 6, DECEMBER 1999

The Neural Basis of Motor-Skill Learning
Daniel B. Willingham1
Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia

Abstract Recent work indicates that motor-skill learning is supported by four processes: a strategic process that selects new goals of what to change in the environment, a perceptualmotorintegration process that adjusts to new relationships between environmental stimuli and the appropriate motor response, a sequencing process that learns sequences of motor acts, and a dynamic process that learns new patterns of muscle activations. These four processes can operate in one of two modes: an unconscious mode, in which one is aware only of the goal of the movement, or a conscious mode, in whichone consciously controls detailed aspects of the movement. This article provides an overview of these four processes and two modes, and describes their neural bases. Keywords motor skill; learning; motor control If motor movements could not be performed more quickly and accurately with practice, getting dressed each morning would be a time-consuming affair, and driving to one s office on ahighway full of novice motorists would provide more thrills than most of us want at an early hour. In the past 10 years, a great deal has been discovered about the anatomic structures that support motor-skill learning. A key result has been the description of

different motor-skill functions subserved by different brain areas. This article provides an overview of some of these findings. Given thespace restrictions, this article focuses on my own point of view, specifically, on a theory of motorskill learning I have recently proposed (Willingham, 1998). More ecumenical reviews are available (Salmon & Butters, 1995).

FOUR PROCESSES SUPPORTING MOTORSKILL LEARNING Motor-skill learning should be differentiated from motor control. Motor control refers to the processes that support the planningand execution of movements. Motorskill learning refers to the increasing spatial and temporal accuracy of movements with practice. Recently, a number of researchers have proposed that motor-skill processes may grow directly out of motor-control processes; in other words, motor skill may be nothing more or less than the increasingly efficient operation of motor-control processes. Figure 1 shows fourhypothetical processes that support motor control. To make a movement, the actor2 (a) selects a goal that something in the environment be changed, (b) selects spatial targets for movement that will achieve the goal, (c) sequences the spatial targets, and (d) translates the sequence of spatial targets into a pattern of muscle activity. How might these processes also support motor-skill learning?In the first motor-control process, the actor selects the environmental goal of the movement. This process can support motorskill learning through the selection of successively more effective goals. This function corresponds closely with the everyday use of the word strategy, and hence this process is called strategic. For example, a bowler faced with a difficult split may try to make the 10...
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