Dissociating error-based and reinforcement-based loss functions during sensorimotor learning

PLoS Comput Biol. 2017 Jul 28;13(7):e1005623. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005623. eCollection 2017 Jul.


It has been proposed that the sensorimotor system uses a loss (cost) function to evaluate potential movements in the presence of random noise. Here we test this idea in the context of both error-based and reinforcement-based learning. In a reaching task, we laterally shifted a cursor relative to true hand position using a skewed probability distribution. This skewed probability distribution had its mean and mode separated, allowing us to dissociate the optimal predictions of an error-based loss function (corresponding to the mean of the lateral shifts) and a reinforcement-based loss function (corresponding to the mode). We then examined how the sensorimotor system uses error feedback and reinforcement feedback, in isolation and combination, when deciding where to aim the hand during a reach. We found that participants compensated differently to the same skewed lateral shift distribution depending on the form of feedback they received. When provided with error feedback, participants compensated based on the mean of the skewed noise. When provided with reinforcement feedback, participants compensated based on the mode. Participants receiving both error and reinforcement feedback continued to compensate based on the mean while repeatedly missing the target, despite receiving auditory, visual and monetary reinforcement feedback that rewarded hitting the target. Our work shows that reinforcement-based and error-based learning are separable and can occur independently. Further, when error and reinforcement feedback are in conflict, the sensorimotor system heavily weights error feedback over reinforcement feedback.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Computational Biology
  • Feedback, Sensory / physiology*
  • Hand
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Task Performance and Analysis*
  • Uncertainty*
  • Young Adult

Grants and funding

Funding was provided for PLG by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (RGPIN 238338). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.