Unlearning versus savings in visuomotor adaptation: comparing effects of washout, passage of time, and removal of errors on motor memory

Front Hum Neurosci. 2013 Jun 28:7:307. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00307. eCollection 2013.


Humans are able to rapidly adapt their movements when a visuomotor or other systematic perturbation is imposed. However, the adaptation is forgotten or unlearned equally rapidly once the perturbation is removed. The ultimate cause of this unlearning remains poorly understood. Unlearning is often considered to be a passive process due to inability to retain an internal model. However, we have recently suggested that it may instead be a process of reversion to habit, without necessarily any forgetting per se. We compared the timecourse and nature of unlearning across a variety of protocols where unlearning is known to occur: error-clamp trials, removal of visual feedback, removal of the perturbation, or simply a period of inactivity. We found that, in agreement with mathematical models, there was no significant difference in the rate of decay between subject who experienced zero-error clamp trials, and subjects who made movements with no visual feedback. Time alone did lead to partial unlearning (over the duration we tested), but the amount of unlearning was inconsistent across subjects. Upon re-exposure to the same perturbation, subjects who unlearned through time or by reverting to veridical feedback exhibited savings. By contrast, no savings was observed in subjects who unlearned by having visual feedback removed or by being placed in a series of error-clamp trials. Thus although these various forms of unlearning can all revert subjects back to baseline behavior, they have markedly different effects on whether long-term memory for the adaptation is spared or is also unlearned. On the basis of these and previous findings, we suggest that unlearning is not due to passive forgetting of an internal model, but is instead an active process whereby adapted behavior gradually reverts to baseline habits.

Keywords: adaptation; decay; savings; unlearning; visuomotor rotation.