The effects of task demands on bimanual skill acquisition
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Bimanual coordination is essential for everyday activities. It is thought that different degrees of demands may affect learning of new bimanual patterns. One demand is at the level of performance and involves breaking the tendency to produce mirror-symmetric movements. A second is at a perceptual level and involves controlling each hand to separate (i.e., split) goals. A third demand involves switching between different task contexts (e.g., a different uni- or bimanual task), instead of continuously practicing one task repeatedly. Here, we studied the effect of these task demands on motor planning (reaction time) and execution (error) while subjects learned a novel bimanual isometric pinch force task. In Experiment 1, subjects continuously practiced in one of the two extremes of the following bimanual conditions: (1) symmetric force demands and a perceptually unified target for each hand or (2) asymmetric force demands and perceptually split targets. Subjects performing in the asymmetric condition showed some interference between hands, but all subjects, regardless of group, could learn the isometric pinch force task similarly. In Experiment 2, subjects practiced these and two other conditions, but in a paradigm where practice was briefly interrupted by the performance of either a unimanual or a different bimanual condition. Reaction times were longer and errors were larger well after the interruption when the main movement to be learned required asymmetric forces. There was no effect when the main movement required symmetric forces. These findings demonstrate two main points. First, people can learn bimanual tasks with very different demands on the same timescale if they are not interrupted. Second, interruption during learning can negatively impact both planning and execution and this depends on the demands of the bimanual task to be learned. This information will be important for training patient populations, who may be more susceptible to increased task demands.