Using noise to shape motor learning

Elias B. Thorp*, Konrad P. Kording, Ferdinando A. Mussa-Ivaldi

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Each of our movements is selected from any number of alternative movements. Some studies have shown evidence that the central nervous system (CNS) chooses to make the specific movements that are least affected by motor noise. Previous results showing that the CNS has a natural tendency to minimize the effects of noise make the direct prediction that if the relationship between movements and noise were to change, the specific movements people learn to make would also change in a predictable manner. Indeed, this has been shown for well-practiced movements such as reaching. Here, we artificially manipulated the relationship between movements and visuomotor noise by adding noise to a motor task in a novel redundant geometry such that there arose a single control policy that minimized the noise. This allowed us to see whether, for a novel motor task, people could learn the specific control policy that minimized noise or would need to employ other compensation strategies to overcome the added noise. As predicted, subjects were able to learn movements that were biased toward the specific ones that minimized the noise, suggesting not only that the CNS can learn to minimize the effects of noise in a novel motor task but also that artificial visuomotor noise can be a useful tool for teaching people to make specific movements. Using noise as a teaching signal promises to be useful for rehabilitative therapies and movement training with human-machine interfaces. NEW & NOTEWORTHY Many theories argue that we choose to make the specific movements that minimize motor noise. Here, by changing the relationship between movements and noise, we show that people actively learn to make movements that minimize noise. This not only provides direct evidence for the theories of noise minimization but presents a way to use noise to teach specific movements to improve rehabilitative therapies and human-machine interface control.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)728-737
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 7 2017


  • Motor control
  • Motor learning
  • Noise
  • Redundancy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Neuroscience(all)


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