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Skill and motor control: intelligence all the way down

Abstract

When reflecting on the nature of skilled action, it is easy to fall into familiar dichotomies such that one construes the flexibility and intelligence of skill at the level of intentional states while characterizing the automatic motor processes that constitute motor skill execution as learned but fixed, invariant, bottom-up, brute-causal responses. In this essay, I will argue that this picture of skilled, automatic, motor processes is overly simplistic. Specifically, I will argue that an adequate account of the learned motor routines that constitute embodied skills cannot be given in a purely bottom-up, brute-causal fashion. Rather, motor control is intelligent all the way down. To establish this, I will first review two recent accounts of skill, Stanley and Krakauer (Front Hum Neurosci, 2013. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.0050) and Papineau (R Inst Philos Suppl 73:175–196, 2013), which characterize the automatic motor control responsible for the fine-grained movements constitutive of motor skill as brute, low-level phenomena. I will then isolate five key features that should apply to skilled motor control, if these accounts are correct. Together, the accounts posit that motor control is: (1) ballistic, (2) invariant, (3) independent of general action trajectories, (4) Insensitive to semantic content, and (5) independent of personal-level intentions. In the final section of this paper, I will appeal to optimal control theory for empirical evidence to challenge the commitment to skilled action as qualified by the above features.

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Notes

  1. In the course of this paper, when I use the word “skill” I will be referring exclusively to skilled bodily actions. I will not take a stance on whether any subpersonal processes, whether perceptual or motor, are properly classified as skills and though I think that a theory of bodily skill will have various interesting implications for our understanding of cognitive skill, I will remain silent on those implications here.

  2. For a notable exception, see Levy (forthcoming) where he forwards a hybrid account where intelligence characterizes both personal-level intentional states and motor representations.

  3. Such an account is also gestured at by Wu (2013).

  4. For Stanley, knowing how is equivalent to having a skill.

  5. See Fridland (2013) for a discussion of problems associated with individuating propositions either in a coarse or fine-grained way.

  6. It is possible to cash out propositions in a more fine-grained fashion such that every variation in movement execution is mirrored by an improvement in propositional knowledge. This is the view forwarded by Pavese (2013). However, on the S&K view, the fine-grained, kinematic details of motor skill execution are not cashed out in terms of propositional knowledge but rather in terms of motor acuity.

  7. See Fridland (2014) for an illustration of the importance of fine-grained motor control in giving an adequate account of skill.

  8. When I use “fine-grained”, I have in mind both the parameters and time-scale of movement. As such, fine-grained movements are evident in both the millimeter and microsecond adjustments that are characteristic of skilled action.

  9. S&K write that “motor skills have an acuity component that is directly analogous to perceptual acuity” (p. 16).

  10. As S&K write, “Shmuelof et al. have recently coined the term “motor acuity” to describe the practice related reductions in movement variability and increases in movement smoothness….Such adaptions are not the acquisition of something that is characteristically manifest in intentional action, i.e., they are not the acquisition of skills” (p. 15).

  11. It seems safe to assume that for Papineau, “conscious” does not just mean “phenomenal” or “experienced” but something more like “an intentional, personal-level states that one is a aware of being in”.

  12. For a response to the claim that these considerations entail that skilled bodily actions are mostly non-conscious, see Shepherd (2015).

  13. For a similar account of intentions organizing action in a top-down manner, by setting the parameters which prime or trigger automatic action execution, see Wu (2013). Wu writes, “We thus act intentionally. In playing the piano, the automaticity aimed for is that the specific notes played need not be represented in one’s intention. “Parameter specification” is automatic because no top-down modulation at the level of intention is required to specify the specific notes played, the ordering of fingering and so forth. Certainly, in learning that passage, one can act with a changing set of demonstrative intentions, say to play that note with these fingers, and this is attentionally demanding. One has to attentively focus on relevant notes or relevant keys. But once the piece is mastered, setting those parameters is automatic” (p. 18–19).

  14. This also seems like a reasonable interpretation of S&K, since Haith and Krakauer (2013a) endorse a view where, following Korenberg and Ghahramani (2002), model-based motor learning can be construed as belief-like.

  15. Adaptation learning can be understood as follows: In these paradigms, subjects experience a perturbation of their hand during reaching or pointing movements: lateral displacement by prisms, rotation of movement direction, or lateral forces applied by a robot arm. Specifically, these paradigms have focused on adaptation, a form of learning characterized by gradual improvement in performance in response to altered conditions.” (Krakauer and Mazzoni 2011, p. 1).

  16. “Learning tasks of this type do not generally have a built-in limit of performance: there is no systematic error to reduce to zero, and final performance is different from baseline” (Shmuelof et al. 2012, p. 579).

  17. As Mandelbaum writes in describing ballisticity, “The proper input is not necessarily processed every time the input reaches the module, but once the processing starts, one cannot stunt it at will, either through top-down effort or via other roughly psychological means” (forthcoming, pp. 6–7).

  18. Though, as Helen De Cruz has pointed out to me in personal communication, this evidence does not support the stronger claim that skilled agents are able to intervene upon or inhibit their actions more quickly than novices. It only supports the claim that skilled actions are not ballistic. Further research is needed to support the, to my mind, plausible prediction that with expertise, inhibitory control over skilled action increases.

  19. As Haith and Krakauer (2013a) write, “far from viewing redundancy as a problem, redundancy should actually be regarded as a positive thing. It makes it easier to find solutions to a given task and allows goals to be achieved more flexibly and robustly. Redundancy, therefore, makes life easier for the motor system to develop adequate means of control and in general enables superior control strategies” (p. 9).

  20. For similar claims cashed out in an account of the relationship between intentions and actions, see Shepherd (2014).

  21. As Haith and Krakauer point out, “there is no need to wait for a large perturbation to prompt an adjustment of one’s movement. Even small deviations from expected trajectories should prompt a flexible change in motor commands” (2013a, p. 15).

  22. Recall that, as we saw above, overcoming perturbations in adaptation paradigms is attributable to model-based representations (i.e., internal forward models) and not to open-loop, model-free processes.

  23. For more on this, see Haith and Krakauer (2013b).

  24. For a preliminary account of how personal-level intentions and the motor representations involved in skilled motor routines might be related see Butterfill and Sinigaglia (2014). For a response to their view, see Mylopoulos and Pacherie (forthcoming).

  25. For arguments as to why these states should be thought of as representing information in different codes, see Butterfill and Sinigaglia (2014), Mylouplous and Pacherie (forthcoming), and Levy (forthcoming).

  26. See Mylopoulos and Pacherie (forthcoming) for convincing reasons why the Butterfill and Sinigaglia (2014) demonstrative solution to the interface problem is left wanting. However, the considerations above also put pressure on Mylopoulos and Pacherie (forthcoming) who have not quite given us a way to understand dynamic interfacing.

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Correspondence to Ellen Fridland.

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Fridland, E. Skill and motor control: intelligence all the way down. Philos Stud 174, 1539–1560 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-016-0771-7

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Keywords

  • Motor control
  • Know how
  • Skill
  • Optimal control theory