Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 202, Issue 2, pp 473–484 | Cite as

Secondary tasks impair adaptation to step- and gradual-visual displacements

  • J. M. Galea
  • S. A. Sami
  • N. B. Albert
  • R. C. Miall
Research Article


Motor adaptation is impaired by the performance of a secondary task which divides cognitive resources. Additionally, we previously reported slowed adaptation when participants were required to switch from one visual displacement adaptation task to another. Here, we examined whether a dividing secondary task had a similar effect on adaptation as switching between opposing visual displacements. The resource-dividing task involved simultaneously adapting to a step-visual displacement whilst vocally shadowing an auditory stimulus. The switching task required participants to adapt to opposing visual displacements in an alternating manner with the left and right hands. We found that both manipulations had a detrimental effect on adaptation rate. We then integrated these tasks and found the combination caused a greater decrease in adaptation rate than either manipulation in isolation. A second set of experiments showed that adaptation to a gradually imposed visual displacement was influenced in a similar manner to step adaptation. In summary, step adaptation slows the learning rate of gradual adaptation to a large degree, whereas gradual adaptation only slightly slows the learning rate of step adaptation. Therefore, although gradual adaptation involves minimal awareness it can still be disrupted with a cognitively demanding secondary task. We propose that awareness and cognitive resource can be regarded as qualitatively different, but that awareness may be a marker of the amount of resource required. For example, large errors are both noticed and require substantial cognitive resource. However, a lack of awareness does not mean an adaptation task will be resistant to interference from a resource-consuming secondary task.


Attention Cognitive Interference Learning Motor adaptation 



We thank Jonathan Winter and Steve Caulder for technical assistance. This work was supported by a grant from the Wellcome trust and an EPSRC studentship.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. M. Galea
    • 1
    • 2
  • S. A. Sami
    • 1
  • N. B. Albert
    • 1
    • 3
  • R. C. Miall
    • 1
  1. 1.Behavioural Brain Sciences, School of PsychologyUniversity of BirminghamBirminghamUK
  2. 2.Department of Physical Medicine and RehabilitationJohns Hopkins Medical InstitutionBaltimoreUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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