In motor learning tasks, there is mixed evidence for whether increased task-relevant variability in early learning stages leads to improved outcomes. One problem is that there may be a connection between skill level and motor variability, such that participants who initially have more variability may also perform worse on the task, so will have more room to improve. To avoid this confound, we experimentally manipulated the amount of movement timing variability (MTV) during training to test whether it improves performance. Based on previous studies showing that most of the improvement in finger-opposition tasks comes from optimizing the relative onset time of the finger movements, we used auditory cues (beeps) to guide the onset times of sequential movements during a training session, and then assessed motor performance after the intervention. Participants were assigned to three groups that either: (a) followed a prescribed random rhythm for their finger touches (Variable MTV), (b) followed a fixed rhythm (Fixed control MTV), or (c) produced the entire sequence following a single beep (Unsupervised control MTV). While the intervention was successful in increasing MTV during training for the Variable group, it did not lead to improved outcomes post-training compared to either control group, and the use of fixed timing led to significantly worse performance compared to the Unsupervised control group. These results suggest that manipulating MTV through auditory cues does not produce greater learning than unconstrained training in motor sequence tasks.
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