Thursday, March 20, 2008

Learn One Movement Skill At a Time


"Motor memory" refers to a mental model (MM) that the brain constructs from past experience. In the example given by researchers Reza Shadmehr and Thomas Brashara-Krug, when a person plans to pick up a brick, a MM of the amount of force required to pick up the brick is used to execute the action.The brain does not estimate the force as if it were a feather nor if it were a sack of cement, rather it uses its memory of what a brick weighs to create a model of how much force will be needed to pick it up.

In the studies they reported, they used a robotic arm that subjects used to manipulate objects. In learning how to use the mechanical arm, subjects had to create a MM of how to make it do what they wanted. Like other kinds of learning, the MM is consolidated with practice into long-term memory.Moreover, motor performance continues to improve, even after actual practice has stopped, indicating that the MM itself may be subconsciously rehearsed, off-line so to speak.

Motor memory processes have great applicability in everything from learning to touch-type to learning to throw a football to a moving target. The study by Shadmehr and Brashara-Krug explored the finding that a recently acquired MM (MM1) can be disrupted if a second MM (MM2) was introduced too soon after MM1.That is, a MM1 has to have enough time to consolidate, just as declarative memories do.

Also, a MM1 can interfere with learning a MM2, if there is not enough time separation between learning the two motor tasks.This was demonstrated in the present study by having 60 subjects learn how to make two conflicting movements using the robotic arm. The MM for both tasks could be learned but only if the training sessions were separated by at least 5 hours. If the interval was shorter, learning of the second MM (MM2) was impaired, as was the likelihood of consolidating the first MM.

The “take home message” of this research is that learning different movement tasks should be separated in time, lest there be interference with forming long-term memory of both tasks. My explanation is the following: Once MM1 gets consolidated (that is, after about 5 hours), the circuits that sustain its short-term representation now become available for learning a second motor memory (MM2). That is, MM1 has proactive interfering after-effects that dissipate with consolidation of the MM1 and thus no longer interfere with learning an MM2.

Athletic coaches might be well advised to ponder the application of this principle.


Shadmehr, R., and Brfashers-Krug, T. 1997. Functional stages in the formation of human long-term motor memory. J. Neuroscience. 17(1): 409-419.

1 comment:

  1. This is so true! By the way, I love your blog. It is excellent and useful. I've been a varsity athlete for Tennis and Soccer, and I am learning the martial art Taekwondo (and play trumpet). Truly, you learn techniques in any of these sports much faster if you are patient. Master one thing at a time, and you will retain it. When you work on several different tennis strokes (or kicks in TKD, or whatever) in the same day, you lose it very quickly. Follow this advice everyone -- it's so useful and true!

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