Motor Demands Constrain Cognitive Rule Structures

PLoS Comput Biol. 2016 Mar 11;12(3):e1004785. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004785. eCollection 2016 Mar.


Study of human executive function focuses on our ability to represent cognitive rules independently of stimulus or response modality. However, recent findings suggest that executive functions cannot be modularized separately from perceptual and motor systems, and that they instead scaffold on top of motor action selection. Here we investigate whether patterns of motor demands influence how participants choose to implement abstract rule structures. In a learning task that requires integrating two stimulus dimensions for determining appropriate responses, subjects typically structure the problem hierarchically, using one dimension to cue the task-set and the other to cue the response given the task-set. However, the choice of which dimension to use at each level can be arbitrary. We hypothesized that the specific structure subjects adopt would be constrained by the motor patterns afforded within each rule. Across four independent data-sets, we show that subjects create rule structures that afford motor clustering, preferring structures in which adjacent motor actions are valid within each task-set. In a fifth data-set using instructed rules, this bias was strong enough to counteract the well-known task switch-cost when instructions were incongruent with motor clustering. Computational simulations confirm that observed biases can be explained by leveraging overlap in cortical motor representations to improve outcome prediction and hence infer the structure to be learned. These results highlight the importance of sensorimotor constraints in abstract rule formation and shed light on why humans have strong biases to invent structure even when it does not exist.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology

Grants and funding

This study was supported by NSF grant NSF # 1460604. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.