Top-down effects in motor generalization

Eugene Poh, Naser Al-Fawakhiri, Rachel Tam, Jordan A. Taylor, Samuel D. McDougle

Research output: Working paperPreprint


To generate adaptive movements we must generalize what we have previously learned to novel situations. The generalization of adapted movements has typically been framed as a consequence of neural tuning functions that overlap for similar movement kinematics - what might be considered bottom-up generalization. However, as is true in many domains of human behavior, generalization can also be framed as the result of deliberate decisions about how to act (top-down generalization). Here we attempt to broaden the scope of theories about motor generalization, hypothesizing that part of the typical motor generalization function can be characterized as a consequence of top-down decisions concerning the subjective similarity of different movement contexts. We tested this proposal by having participants make explicit similarity ratings over both traditional kinematic contextual dimensions (movement direction) and more abstract contextual dimensions (target shape), and perform a visuomotor adaptation generalization task where trials varied over those dimensions. Across five experiments, we measured the relationship between subjective similarity ratings and motor generalization. In some cases this link was rather strong, though it was determined by both task-relevance and explicit instruction. These results support a broadening of the descriptive framework used to understand the generalization of motor behaviors and support a more careful deployment of instructions in generalization studies.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages32
Publication statusSubmitted - 16 Feb 2021

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