When repeatedly switching between two visuomotor mappings, e.g. in a reaching or pointing task, adaptation tends to speed up over time. That is, when the error in the feedback corresponds to a mapping switch, fast adaptation occurs. Yet, what is learned, the relative error or the absolute mappings? When switching between mappings, errors with a size corresponding to the relative difference between the mappings will occur more often than other large errors. Thus, we could learn to correct more for errors with this familiar size (Error Learning). On the other hand, it has been shown that the human visuomotor system can store several absolute visuomotor mappings (Mapping Learning) and can use associated contextual cues to retrieve them. Thus, when contextual information is present, no error feedback is needed to switch between mappings. Using a rapid pointing task, we investigated how these two types of learning may each contribute when repeatedly switching between mappings in the absence of task-irrelevant contextual cues. After training, we examined how participants changed their behaviour when a single error probe indicated either the often-experienced error (Error Learning) or one of the previously experienced absolute mappings (Mapping Learning). Results were consistent with Mapping Learning despite the relative nature of the error information in the feedback. This shows that errors in the feedback can have a double role in visuomotor behaviour: they drive the general adaptation process by making corrections possible on subsequent movements, as well as serve as contextual cues that can signal a learned absolute mapping.
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This research was supported by the Human Frontier Science Program, the DFG Cluster of Excellence: Cognitive Interaction Technology “CITEC” (EXC 277) and EU Grant No. 601165 “WEARHAP”. The experiments were conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen Germany. The authors thank David Hawellek for his help with data collection, and Cesare Parise for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.
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