Individual differences in implicit motor learning: task specificity in sensorimotor adaptation and sequence learning
In standard taxonomies, motor skills are typically treated as representative of implicit or procedural memory. We examined two emblematic tasks of implicit motor learning, sensorimotor adaptation and sequence learning, asking whether individual differences in learning are correlated between these tasks, as well as how individual differences within each task are related to different performance variables. As a prerequisite, it was essential to establish the reliability of learning measures for each task. Participants were tested twice on a visuomotor adaptation task and on a sequence learning task, either the serial reaction time task or the alternating reaction time task. Learning was evident in all tasks at the group level and reliable at the individual level in visuomotor adaptation and the alternating reaction time task but not in the serial reaction time task. Performance variability was predictive of learning in both domains, yet the relationship was in the opposite direction for adaptation and sequence learning. For the former, faster learning was associated with lower variability, consistent with models of sensorimotor adaptation in which learning rates are sensitive to noise. For the latter, greater learning was associated with higher variability and slower reaction times, factors that may facilitate the spread of activation required to form predictive, sequential associations. Interestingly, learning measures of the different tasks were not correlated. Together, these results oppose a shared process for implicit learning in sensorimotor adaptation and sequence learning and provide insight into the factors that account for individual differences in learning within each task domain. NEW & NOTEWORTHY: We investigated individual differences in the ability to implicitly learn motor skills. As a prerequisite, we assessed whether individual differences were reliable across test sessions. We found that two commonly used tasks of implicit learning, visuomotor adaptation and the alternating serial reaction time task, exhibited good test-retest reliability in measures of learning and performance. However, the learning measures did not correlate between the two tasks, arguing against a shared process for implicit motor learning.