On the encoding capacity of human motor adaptation

Seungyeon Kim, Jaewoon Kwon, Jin-Min Kim, Frank Chongwoo Park, Sang-Hoon Yeo

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Primitive-based models of motor learning suggest that adaptation occurs by tuning the responses of motor primitives. Based on this idea, we consider motor learning as an information encoding procedure, that is, a procedure of encoding a motor skill into primitives. The capacity of encoding is determined by the number of recruited primitives, which depends on how many primitives are "visited" by the movement, and this leads to a rather counterintuitive prediction that faster movement, where a larger number of motor primitives are involved, allows learning more complicated motor skills. Here, we provide a set of experimental results that support this hypothesis. First, we show that learning occurs only with movement, that is, only with nonzero encoding capacity. When participants were asked to counteract a rotating force applied to a robotic handle, they were unable to do so when maintaining a static posture but were able to adapt when making small circular movements. Our second experiment further investigated how adaptation is affected by movement speed. When adapting to a simple (low-information-content) force field, fast (high-capacity) movement did not have an advantage over slow (low-capacity) movement. However, for a complex (high-information-content) force field, the fast movement showed a significant advantage over slow movement. Our final experiment confirmed that the observed benefit of high-speed movement is only weakly affected by mechanical factors. Taken together, our results suggest that the encoding capacity is a genuine limiting factor of human motor adaptation.NEW & NOTEWORTHY We propose a novel concept called "encoding capacity" of motor adaptation, which describes an inherent limiting-factor of our brain's ability to learn new motor skills, just like any other storage system. By reinterpreting the existing primitive-based models of motor learning, we hypothesize that the encoding capacity is determined by the size of the movement, and present a set of experimental evidence suggesting that such limiting effect of encoding capacity does exist in human motor adaptation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)123-139
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Neurophysiology
Issue number1
Early online date14 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021


  • Encoding capacity
  • Motor adaptation
  • Motor primitives
  • Signal-dependent noise

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Physiology


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