, Volume 152, Issue 2, pp 229-242
Date: 18 Jul 2003

Chunking during human visuomotor sequence learning

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Abstract

Motor sequence learning is a process whereby a series of elementary movements is re-coded into an efficient representation for the entire sequence. Here we show that human subjects learn a visuomotor sequence by spontaneously chunking the elementary movements, while each chunk acts as a single memory unit. The subjects learned to press a sequence of 10 sets of two buttons through trial and error. By examining the temporal patterns with which subjects performed a visuomotor sequence, we found that the subjects performed the 10 sets as several clusters of sets, which were separated by long time gaps. While the overall performance time decreased by repeating the same sequence, the clusters became clearer and more consistent. The cluster pattern was uncorrelated with the distance of hand movements and was different across subjects who learned the same sequence. We then split a learned sequence into three segments, while preserving or destroying the clusters in the learned sequence, and shuffled the segments. The performance on the shuffled sequence was more accurate and quicker when the clusters in the original sequence were preserved than when they were destroyed. The results suggest that each cluster is processed as a single memory unit, a chunk, and is necessary for efficient sequence processing. A learned visuomotor sequence is hierarchically represented as chunks that contain several elementary movements. We also found that the temporal patterns of sequence performance transferred from the nondominant to dominant hand, but not vice versa. This may suggest a role of the dominant hemisphere in storage of learned chunks. Together with our previous unit-recording and imaging studies that used the same learning paradigm, we predict specific roles of the dominant parietal area, basal ganglia, and presupplementary motor area in the chunking.