Sequence learning is driven by improvements in motor planning
Journal of Neurophysiology
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© 2019 the American Physiological Society. The ability to perform complex sequences of movements quickly and accurately is critical for many motor skills. Although training improves performance in a large variety of motor sequence tasks, the precise mechanisms behind such improvements are poorly understood. Here we investigated the contribution of single-action selection, sequence preplanning, online planning, and motor execution to performance in a discrete sequence production task. Five visually presented numbers cued a sequence of five finger presses, which had to be executed as quickly and accurately as possible. To study how sequence planning influenced sequence production, we manipulated the amount of time that participants were given to prepare each sequence by using a forced-response paradigm. Over 4 days, participants were trained on 10 sequences and tested on 80 novel sequences. Our results revealed that participants became faster in selecting individual finger presses. They also preplanned three or four sequence items into the future, and the speed of preplanning improved for trained, but not for untrained, sequences. Because preplanning capacity remained limited, the remaining sequence elements had to be planned online during sequence execution, a process that also improved with sequence-specific training. Overall, our results support the view that motor sequence learning effects are best characterized by improvements in planning processes that occur both before and concurrently with motor execution.