Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 175, Issue 4, pp 710–725 | Cite as

Target width scaling in a repetitive aiming task: switching between cyclical and discrete units of action

  • John J. Buchanan
  • Jin-Hoon Park
  • Charles H. Shea
Research Article


An aiming task was used to identify the processes whereby the motor system adapted a repetitive aiming action to systematic changes in ID (ID = log2 (2A/W), Fitts in J Exp Psychol 47:381–391, 1954) within a single trial. Task ID was scaled in a trial by moving the outside edge of two stationary targets to produce nine different target IDs in a trail. The ID within a trial was scaled in one of two directions: (1) an increasing ID condition, starting with an ID = 3.07 and ending with an ID = 5.91; and (2) a decreasing ID condition, starting with an ID = 5.91 and ending with an ID = 3.07. An index of movement harmonicity (Guiard in Acta Psychol 82:139–159, 1993) revealed that the repetitive aiming action was harmonic in nature when task ID was 3.07, and consisted of a series of discrete segments when task ID was 5.91. This finding provides evidence for the existence of discrete and cyclical units of action that are irreducible and that may be employed independently to assemble longer continuous actions. The scaling of ID within a trial promoted a transition in repetitive aiming motions assembled from discrete and cyclical units of action. A variety of kinematic measures (e.g., movement harmonicity, time spent accelerating the limb) revealed a critical ID (IDc) region (4.01–4.91) separating aiming motions governed by the different units of action. Enhancement of fluctuations before the transition were found in the movement harmonicity data and in the distance traveled to peak velocity data, with variability in these measures highest in the IDc region. The enhancement of fluctuations indicates that loss of stability in the limb’s motion acted as a key mechanism underlying the transition between units of action. The loss of stability was associated with the transition from cyclical to discrete actions and with the transition from discrete to cyclical actions. The transition between units of action may be conceptualized as a transition from a limit cycle attractor (cyclical unit of action) to a shift between two fixed-point attractors (discrete unit of action) when ID was increased, with the transition occurring in the opposite direction when ID was decreased.


Fitts’ law Limit cycle Fixed point Loss of stability Critical boundary Planning and feedback 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • John J. Buchanan
    • 1
  • Jin-Hoon Park
    • 2
  • Charles H. Shea
    • 1
  1. 1.Human Performance Laboratories, Department of Health and KinesiologyTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA
  2. 2.Department of Physical EducationKorea UniversitySeoulKorea

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