Study to examine learning, and relearning, to move

October 1, 2018

“Think of a golfer trying to fix a bad swing,” Assistant Professor Rajiv Ranganathan explained. The golfer already knows how to swing, how to connect with the ball—but if they want to adjust their technique, they would need to “relearn” to modify their stroke.

Ranganathan, a scholar in the Michigan State University Department of Kinesiology, is hoping to examine this process of learning, and relearning, movements with a more than $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

“There’s very little we understand about how prior learned experiences, like a golfer’s swing, affect future relearning,” Ranganathan continued. “We want to try to understand these principles.”

The research could have impacts reaching across the spectrum, from making adjustments to skills and repertoire in sports and music to adjusting rehabilitation practices for movement disorders.

Testing the theory: Movements and music

Ranganathan and his collaborators have designed a novel lab task where participants—undergraduate student volunteers from MSU—will wear a glove to control a mouse cursor on a computer. Wiggling the index finger could cause the cursor to move in one direction; shifting the pinky might cause the cursor to move in another. The idea is that wearing the glove and learning to control the cursor movements will be totally unique to the participants, and Ranganathan and his collaborators can watch the learning process in-action.

Then, the scholars will adjust how the cursor responds to the glove motion, and use metrics like time and accuracy of movement to see how participants “relearn” the task all over again. A small group of participants will have an additional component of the study, where the glove movements will revert back to what they had learned at first. The researchers will try to quantify what happens with motor memories of old tasks, and how new memories can interfere with them.

During the summers, Ranganathan and his collaborators will test out relearning in a real-world context as well. Working with Maura Casadio and Leigh A. Mrotek from Marquette University, the team will work with novice and expert violinists and present them with violins where the strings are slightly changed from a typical instrument and examine how they adapt. The results will complement the findings from the lab studies.

“There is this sort of paradox,” Ranganathan said. “You think of experts being excellent at what they do. Professional athletes practice their craft for years and years, and can produce what seems to be extremely consistent movement patterns every time they perform. But consistency can be a bad thing if you have to change. How can experts manage to be consistent and still be adaptable at relearning? That’s what we are really trying to understand.”

Goals, impact and next steps

The main goals of the study are to characterize what specific features of the prior learning affect the relearning process—for example, the similarity between the prior and new movement patterns. In addition, the study will also examine if practicing with different variations of the task can help the relearning process.

The research ties into Ranganathan’s work of rehabilitation of movement disorders, primarily for people after a stroke.

“If we understand the basic principles of movement, of learning to move and how to teach it well, it could have a big impact on rehabilitation,” he said.

Over the next three years of the grant, the researchers expect they will work with 60-80 participants per year at MSU, and hope to begin collecting data as soon as next month.