Learning of temporal motor patterns: an analysis of continuous versus reset timing

Front Integr Neurosci. 2011 Oct 13;5:61. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2011.00061. eCollection 2011.


Our ability to generate well-timed sequences of movements is critical to an array of behaviors, including the ability to play a musical instrument or a video game. Here we address two questions relating to timing with the goal of better understanding the neural mechanisms underlying temporal processing. First, how does accuracy and variance change over the course of learning of complex spatiotemporal patterns? Second, is the timing of sequential responses most consistent with starting and stopping an internal timer at each interval or with continuous timing? To address these questions we used a psychophysical task in which subjects learned to reproduce a sequence of finger taps in the correct order and at the correct times - much like playing a melody at the piano. This task allowed us to calculate the variance of the responses at different time points using data from the same trials. Our results show that while "standard" Weber's law is clearly violated, variance does increase as a function of time squared, as expected according to the generalized form of Weber's law - which separates the source of variance into time-dependent and time-independent components. Over the course of learning, both the time-independent variance and the coefficient of the time-dependent term decrease. Our analyses also suggest that timing of sequential events does not rely on the resetting of an internal timer at each event. We describe and interpret our results in the context of computer simulations that capture some of our psychophysical findings. Specifically, we show that continuous timing, as opposed to "reset" timing, is consistent with "population clock" models in which timing emerges from the internal dynamics of recurrent neural networks.

Keywords: computational modeling; human psychophysics; neural dynamics; recurrent networks; temporal processing; time estimation and production; timing.