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Drever, Johannes (2012): Rapid acquisition of long spatial sequences in long-term memory. Dissertation, LMU München: Faculty of Medicine
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Abstract

Learning complex movement sequences requires an active, attentional selection of the content that is learned. The selection mechanism can not be investigated in classical stimulus-guided sequence learning paradigms because it requires a movement sequence production that is not triggered by external stimuli. In deferred imitation learning the whole stimulus sequence is presented and reproduction is started only after the presentation has ended. In order to investigate how the selective control of the learning process proceeds in natural learning situations and to investigate all influencing parameters we developed a new paradigm in which long sequences were learned by deferred imitation learning. In this task a long sequence of stimuli was presented on a graphic tablet and reproduced by manual pointing after the stimulus presentation was finished. Since the sequence exceeded the capacity of working memory because of its length it had to be reproduced and learned in several trials. Therefore, an attentional selection was required during learning. In our first study a method for evaluating reproduction performance in the new learning paradigm was developed. The assignment of reproductions to target positions posed a major methodological difficulty. This problem was solved by introducing an assignment algorithm that takes the order of reproduction into account. The algorithm was explained, it was further compared to an algorithm that performs a nearest neighbor assignment and finally validated by a comparison to a human operator assignment. The results showed that the assignment algorithm is an appropriate method for analyzing long sequences of pointing movements and is suitable for evaluating reproduction performance and learning progress in deferred imitation learning of long sequences. In the second study we investigated further how long sequences of pointing movements are acquired. Long-term retention tests showed that the sequences were retained for at least two weeks in long-term memory. A transfer test showed that the sequences were represented in an effector independent representation. The distributions of pointing positions were analyzed in detail in order to characterize the control signal of the pointing movements. The analysis showed that position errors to successive target positions were not dependent on the movement direction and further, that directional error did not propagate to reproductions of successive target positions. These results suggest that end points rather than movement trajectories are memorized in this learning task. Our third study evaluated the organization and reorganization of the sequence representation in memory. The change in sequence reproduction without intermediate presentations showed that the remembered target positions drifted away from the initial representation, where the target drift saturated after about 5 trials. The analysis of the drift direction of representations of single target positions showed that there was no systematic drift direction for single subjects. Further it indicated that the representation did not drift to similar, but to different patterns across subjects. In order to investigate whether sequences are encoded in chunks or as single target positions we performed an experiment in which two target positions in a well learned sequence were exchanged. We analyzed the effect of the target exchange on target positions neighboring the exchanged target position. The target exchange effected neither the position nor the variance of neighboring memorized target positions. These results support the view that single target positions rather than chunks of target positions are memorized. Thus our study suggests that the sequence acquisition is guided by an active selection process which is able to quickly acquire abstract movement plans. Our findings further support the view that these movement plans are represented as strings of independent, absolute target positions.