Minimizing endpoint variability through reinforcement learning during reaching movements involving shoulder, elbow and wrist
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Reaching movements are comprised of the coordinated action across multiple joints. The human skeleton is redundant for this task because different joint configurations can lead to the same endpoint in space. How do people learn to use combinations of joints that maximize success in goal-directed motor tasks? To answer this question, we used a 3-degree-of-freedom manipulandum to measure shoulder, elbow and wrist joint movements during reaching in a plane. We tested whether a shift in the relative contribution of the wrist and elbow joints to a reaching movement could be learned by an implicit reinforcement regime. Unknown to the participants, we decreased the task success for certain joint configurations (wrist flexion or extension, respectively) by adding random variability to the endpoint feedback. In return, the opposite wrist postures were rewarded in the two experimental groups (flexion and extension group). We found that the joint configuration slowly shifted towards movements that provided more control over the endpoint and hence higher task success. While the overall learning was significant, only the group that was guided to extend the wrist joint more during the movement showed substantial learning. Importantly, all changes in movement pattern occurred independent of conscious awareness of the experimental manipulation. These findings suggest that the motor system is generally sensitive to its output variability and can optimize joint-space solutions that minimize task-relevant output variability. We discuss biomechanical biases (e.g. joint’s range of movement) that could impose hurdles to the learning process.