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Increasing the distance of an external focus of attention enhances learning

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Previous studies (e.g., Wulf, Höß, & Prinz, 1998) have shown that motor learning can be enhanced by directing performers' attention to the effects of their movements ("external focus"), rather than to the body movements producing the effect ("internal focus"). The purpose of the present study was to test the hypothesis that increasing the distance between the body and the action effects might further enhance the learning advantages associated with an external focus of attention. The distance of the external effect was manipulated by instructing three groups of participants learning to balance on a stabilometer to focus on markers attached to the platform located at different distances from their feet. Specifically, two groups were to focus on distant markers on the outside ("far-outside") or inside ("far-inside") of the platform, respectively, whereas another group was instructed to focus on markers close to their feet ("near"). In a retention test administered after two days of practice, all three external-focus groups showed generally more effective balance learning than an internal-focus control group. In addition, the far-outside and far-inside groups demonstrated similar performances, and both were more effective than the near group. Furthermore, the far-outside and far-inside groups showed higher-frequency movement adjustments than the near group. These results suggest that focusing on more distant effects results in enhanced learning by promoting the utilization of more natural control mechanisms. The findings are in line with a "constrained action" hypothesis that accounts for the relatively poorer learning associated with an attentional focus directed towards effects in close proximity to the body, or towards the body itself.

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McNevin, N.H., Shea, C.H. & Wulf, G. Increasing the distance of an external focus of attention enhances learning. Psychological Research 67, 22–29 (2003).

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