Inconsistent attentional contexts impair relearning following gradual visuomotor adaptation


One of the brain’s primary functions is to promote actions in dynamic, distracting environments. Because distractions divert attention from our primary goals, we must learn to maintain accurate actions under sensory and cognitive distractions. Visuomotor adaptation is a learning process that restores performance when sensorimotor capacities or environmental conditions are abruptly or gradually altered. Prior work showed that learning to counteract an abrupt perturbation under a particular single- or dual-task setting (i.e., attentional context) was associated with better recall under the same conditions. This suggested that the attentional context was encoded during adaptation and used as a recall cue. The current study investigated whether the attentional context (i.e., single vs. dual task) also affected adaptation and recall to a gradual perturbation, which limited awareness of movement errors. During adaptation, participants moved a cursor to a target while learning to counteract a visuomotor rotation that increased from 0 to 45 by 0.3 each trial, with or without performing a secondary task. Relearning was impaired when the attentional context was different between adaptation and recall (experiment 1), even when the exposure to the attentional context was limited to the early or late half of adaptation (experiment 2). Changing the secondary task did not affect relearning, indicating that the attentional context, rather than specific stimuli or tasks, was associated with better recall performance (experiment 3). These findings highlight the importance of cognitive factors, such as attention, in visuomotor adaptation and have implications for learning and rehabilitation paradigms.

NEW & NOTEWORTHY Adaptation acquired under single- or dual-task setting, which created an undivided or divided attentional context, respectively, was impaired when relearning occurred under different conditions (i.e., shifting from a dual to single task). Changes to the attentional context impaired relearning when the initial adaptation was to a gradual perturbation. Explicit awareness of the perturbation was not necessary for this effect to be robust, nor was the effect attributable to changes in the secondary task requirements.

*Im, H. Y., Liddy, J. J., & Song, J.-H. (2022). Inconsistent attentional contexts impair relearning following gradual visuomotor adaptation. Journal of Neurophysiology, 128(3), 527–542. *[PDF]