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J Mot Behav. 1987 Sep;19(3):291-309.

Changes in the variability of movement trajectories with practice.

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Department of Exercise Science, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, USA.


We studied variability in movement phase plane trajectories (velocity-position relation) during movement. Human subjects performed 10 degrees and 30 degrees elbow flexion and extension movements in a visual step tracking paradigm. The area of ellipses with radii equal to one standard deviation in position and velocity was taken as a measure of trajectory variability. Trajectory variability was determined at 10-ms intervals throughout movements. Trajectory variability in both the acceleration and deceleration phases of movement decreased with practice. The average trajectory variability during deceleration was greater than that during acceleration even after extended practice (1000 trials). During practice, subjects usually increased movement speed while maintaining end-position accuracy. Trajectory variability was also related to movement speed when equal amounts of practice were given. Short duration (fast) movements had greater trajectory variability than long duration movements. Thus there is a tradeoff between movement speed and trajectory variability similar to the classical speed-accuracy tradeoff. Trajectory variability increased rapidly during the acceleratory phase of movement. The rate of increase was positively related to both movement amplitude and speed. Thus, the forces producing limb acceleration were variable and this variability was more marked in faster and larger movements. In contrast, trajectory variability increased more slowly or actually decreased during the deceleratory phase of movements. Forces involved in limb deceleration thus appeared to compensate to a greater or lesser degree for the variability in accelerative forces. The experiments indicate that the entire trajectory of simple limb movements is controlled by the central nervous system. Variations in accelerative forces may be compensated for by associated variations in decelerative forces. The linkage between accelerative and decelerative forces is progressively refined with practice resulting in decreased variability of the movement trajectory.

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