Using gaze behavior to parcellate the explicit and implicit contributions to visuomotor learning

J Neurophysiol. 2018 Oct 1;120(4):1602-1615. doi: 10.1152/jn.00113.2018. Epub 2018 Jul 11.


Successful motor performance relies on our ability to adapt to changes in the environment by learning novel mappings between motor commands and sensory outcomes. Such adaptation is thought to involve two distinct mechanisms: an implicit, error-based component linked to slow learning and an explicit, strategic component linked to fast learning and savings (i.e., faster relearning). Because behavior, at any given moment, is the resultant combination of these two processes, it has remained a challenge to parcellate their relative contributions to performance. The explicit component to visuomotor rotation (VMR) learning has recently been measured by having participants verbally report their aiming strategy used to counteract the rotation. However, this procedure has been shown to magnify the explicit component. Here we tested whether task-specific eye movements, a natural component of reach planning, but poorly studied in motor learning tasks, can provide a direct readout of the state of the explicit component during VMR learning. We show, by placing targets on a visible ring and including a delay between target presentation and reach onset, that individual differences in gaze patterns during sensorimotor learning are linked to participants' rates of learning and their expression of savings. Specifically, we find that participants who, during reach planning, naturally fixate an aimpoint rotated away from the target location, show faster initial adaptation and readaptation 24 h later. Our results demonstrate that gaze behavior cannot only uniquely identify individuals who implement cognitive strategies during learning but also how their implementation is linked to differences in learning. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Although it is increasingly well appreciated that sensorimotor learning is driven by two separate components, an error-based process and a strategic process, it has remained a challenge to identify their relative contributions to performance. Here we demonstrate that task-specific eye movements provide a direct read-out of explicit strategies during sensorimotor learning in the presence of visual landmarks. We further show that individual differences in gaze behavior are linked to learning rate and savings.

Keywords: eye movements; motor adaptation; motor learning; reaching visuomotor rotation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Eye Movements*
  • Female
  • Hand Strength
  • Humans
  • Learning*
  • Male
  • Psychomotor Performance*
  • Rotation
  • Sensorimotor Cortex / physiology
  • Young Adult

Grants and funding