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Behav Neurosci. 2016 Apr;130(2):252-60. doi: 10.1037/bne0000126. Epub 2016 Feb 8.

Skill acquisition via motor imagery relies on both motor and perceptual learning.

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Laboratory for Brain Recovery and Function.
Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.
Dalhousie University.


Motor imagery (MI), the mental rehearsal of movement, is an effective means for acquiring a novel skill, even in the absence of physical practice (PP). The nature of this learning, be it perceptual, motor, or both, is not well understood. Understanding the mechanisms underlying MI-based skill acquisition has implications for its use in numerous disciplines, including informing best practices regarding its use. Here we used an implicit sequence learning (ISL) task to probe whether MI-based skill acquisition can be attributed to perceptual or motor learning. Participants (n = 60) randomized to 4 groups were trained through MI or PP, and were then tested in either perceptual (altering the sensory cue) or motor (switching the hand) transfer conditions. Control participants (n = 42) that did not perform a transfer condition were utilized from previous work. Learning was quantified through effect sizes for reaction time (RT) differences between implicit and random sequences. Generally, PP-based training led to lower RTs compared with MI-based training for implicit and random sequences. All groups demonstrated learning (p < .05), the magnitude of which was reduced by transfer conditions relative to controls. For MI-based training perceptual transfer disrupted performance more than for PP. Motor transfer disrupted performance equally for MI- and PP-based training. Our results suggest that MI-based training relies on both perceptual and motor learning, while PP-based training relies more on motor processes. These results reveal details regarding the mechanisms underlying MI, and inform its use as a modality for skill acquisition. (PsycINFO Database Record.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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