Explicit knowledge enhances motor vigor and performance: motivation versus practice in sequence tasks

J Neurophysiol. 2015 Jul;114(1):219-32. doi: 10.1152/jn.00218.2015. Epub 2015 Apr 22.


Motor skill learning involves a practice-induced improvement in the speed and/or accuracy of a discrete movement. It is often thought that paradigms involving repetitive practice of discrete movements performed in a fixed sequence result in a further enhancement of skill beyond practice of the individual movements in a random order. Sequence-specific performance improvements could, however, arise without practice as a result of knowledge of the sequence order; knowledge could operate by either enabling advanced motor planning of the known sequence elements or by increasing overall motivation. Here, we examined how knowledge and practice contribute to performance of a sequence of movements. We found that explicit knowledge provided through instruction produced practice-independent improvements in reaction time and execution quality. These performance improvements occurred even for random elements within a partially known sequence, indicative of a general motivational effect rather than a sequence-specific effect of advanced planning. This motivational effect suggests that knowledge influences performance in a manner analogous to reward. Additionally, practice led to similar improvements in execution quality for both known and random sequences. The lack of interaction between knowledge and practice suggests that any skill acquisition occurring during discrete sequence tasks arises solely from practice of the individual movement elements, independent of their order. We conclude that performance improvements in discrete sequence tasks arise from the combination of knowledge-based motivation and sequence-independent practice; investigating this interplay between cognition and movement may facilitate a greater understanding of the acquisition of skilled behavior.

Keywords: cognition; learning; reward; sequential; skill.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Arm / physiology
  • Awareness
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation*
  • Motor Skills* / physiology
  • Psychophysics
  • Reaction Time
  • Reward
  • Young Adult