The Impact of Motor Learning on Motor Behavior and Cortical Dynamics in a Complex Stressful Social Environment

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An economy of effort is a core characteristic of highly skilled motor performance often described as being effortless or automatic. Electroencephalographic (EEG) evaluation of cortical activity in elite performers has consistently revealed a reduction in extraneous associative cortical activity and an enhancement of task-relevant cortical processes. However, this has only been demonstrated under what are essentially practice-like conditions. Recently it has been shown that cerebral cortical activity becomes less efficient when performance occurs in a stressful, complex social environment. This dissertation examines the impact of motor skill training or practice on the EEG cortical dynamics that underlie performance in a stressful, complex social environment. Sixteen ROTC cadets participated in head-to-head pistol shooting competitions before and after completing nine sessions of skill training over three weeks. Spectral power increased in the theta frequency band and decreased in the low alpha frequency band after skill training. EEG Coherence increased in the left frontal region and decreased in the left temporal region after the practice intervention. These suggest a refinement of cerebral cortical dynamics with a reduction of task extraneous processing in the left frontal region and an enhancement of task related processing in the left temporal region consistent with the skill level reached by participants. Partitioning performance into ‘best’ and ‘worst’ based on shot score revealed that deliberate practice appears to optimize cerebral cortical activity of ‘best’ performances which are accompanied by a reduction in task-specific processes reflected by increased high-alpha power, while ‘worst’ performances are characterized by an inappropriate reduction in task-specific processing resulting in a loss of focus reflected by higher high-alpha power after training when compared to ‘best’ performances. Together, these studies demonstrate the power of experience afforded by practice, as a controllable factor, to promote resilience of cerebral cortical efficiency in complex environments.