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Annu Rev Neurosci. 2017 Jul 25;40:479-498. doi: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-072116-031548. Epub 2017 May 10.

The Role of Variability in Motor Learning.

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Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138; email:
Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138.
John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138.


Trial-to-trial variability in the execution of movements and motor skills is ubiquitous and widely considered to be the unwanted consequence of a noisy nervous system. However, recent studies have suggested that motor variability may also be a feature of how sensorimotor systems operate and learn. This view, rooted in reinforcement learning theory, equates motor variability with purposeful exploration of motor space that, when coupled with reinforcement, can drive motor learning. Here we review studies that explore the relationship between motor variability and motor learning in both humans and animal models. We discuss neural circuit mechanisms that underlie the generation and regulation of motor variability and consider the implications that this work has for our understanding of motor learning.


motor adaptation; motor control; reinforcement learning; songbird

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