How to improve your motor skills - change is good.

A recent study published by scientists at Johns Hopkins Medical Institute led by Dr. Pablo Celnik found a better way to improve at a motor task. Rather than repetitive practice sessions of the same task, the study indicates that rehearsing the motor task with minor variations in the task improves your capability to perform the initial task.

The subjects were asked to learn to use an input device to manipulate an on-screen avatar, much like a mouse is used to move a cursor. To minimize any familiarity with the mouse as the input device, the experimenters introduced a novel device for the subjects to use, called a force transducer. This device registers the strength of a pinch, and translates that pressure into movement of a cursor across the screen.

Subjects were split into three groups. All of them were asked to learn to use the force transducer to move a cursor from a "home" position to another location on the screen. The task was to perform this as quickly and as accurately as possible during a training session. All three groups were also asked to perform multiple iterations of this task 24 hours after training. For the control group, these two sessions were all that was required. A separate group received an additional training session 6 hours after the first training. The experimental group received this second training session as well, however, in their session, the task was modified slightly: each iteration within the session had slightly different variables for how the force transducer translated the pinch into cursor movement. 

Their results? The group with the modified task training performed the best on the re-evaluation the next day.

In my opinion, this "variation" is actually learning a COMPLETELY NEW task, despite the readout measure, interface, and objective being identical. The concept of pinching to move a cursor is novel, yes - but the most significant aspect that is learned in this task is the mapping of pinch intensity to cursor movement. Within the modified task group, they were asked to relearn this correlation on each trial, essentially demanding their brains to constantly learn new associations. It is not just a simple modification on the pinch task, it is repeatedly challenging the brain to become more adaptive over a short period of time (more plastic, in the parlance of neuroscience.) By relearning the same task multiple times, it causes the brain to become better at handling changes and reacting to different environmental variables. Thus, when presented with the initial task again, they are better adapted to deal with the shift to the original mapping configuration.

The original study, called "Motor Skills are Strengthened through Reconsolidation," has just been published in Current Biology.