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Motor learning

April 4, 2011

Recently, due to some automotive bad luck, I’ve had to change cars. The “new” car is an old, rather loud, manual transmission. My skills with a manual transmission are suspect at best. The only reason they are not non-existent is due to a trip to Rent-a-Wreck one bored weekend during my college days. The basic idea is clear to me; use a 3rd(!!) pedal and a stick to do what regular cars will do for you automatically. Initially I went about trying to (re)learn this skill with the help of a friend who actually drove such a car. As we all know experts always make great teachers, particularly for these sorts of physical tasks. Faster! Slower! You just need to do it better, like me. It was clear rather quickly that explicit instruction wasn’t going to be that helpful. Much stalling ensued.

From novice to expert performance: Attention, memory, and the control of complex sensorimotor skills. In A. M. Williams, N. J. Hodges, M. A. Scott, & M. L. J. Court (Eds.), Skill acquisition in sport: Research, theory and practice

Every once and a while I’ll browse a  paper like this, usually after reading a popular press story about sports psychology; Tiger working on a new swing, major league pitcher can’t hit side of barn. Sensorimotor sills, kinesiology and such. I know very little about it, but find it interesting. And perhaps, useful. Once free of my instructor I tried to make use of what I at least thought I’d read in these articles. Focus on how the motion feels. Or focus on not focusing too much. Don’t think about what you’re doing, but pay attention.

Consider the following quote from a research lab:

Broadly speaking, work in our lab investigates the cognitive and neural substrates governing the learning and performance of complex cognitive skills and complex sensorimotor skills (e.g., golf putting). We are interested in understanding the attention and memory processes that support task execution, as well as how high-pressure or high-stakes situations impact performance.

I’ve seen plenty of sporting events. Bottom of the 9ths, triple overtimes. Quite certainly few of these situations match the high-pressure of a novice driver waiting for a light to turn green, on a steep hill, with dozens of morning rush hour commuters behind him.
More stalling.

It had been some time since the last time I even successfully learned a new motor activity. There was walking, biking, swimming. And that’s right, I ran hurdles back in high school. Not very well, but still whenever I walk towards something between 36 and 39 inches in height I can feel the neural pathways whispering “You sure you don’t want to hurdle that?”

Beilock, S. L. (2007). Choking under pressure. In R. Baumeister and K. Vohs (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social psychology.

It didn’t take too much work to get beyond the “can’t even get going” zone, into something more like the “can get from point A to B but it aint pretty”. That is where I remained for some weeks. Driving to and from work everyday. There was still quite a bit of stalling. Every time I had a good no-stall morning I’d crash and have a 4 stall afternoon. I even figured out a new route home to avoid hills likely to have traffic.

Shadmehr R, Smith MA & Krakauer JW (2010). Error correction, sensory prediction, and adaptation in motor control. Annual Review of Neuroscience,

When paying attention becomes counterproductive: Impact of divided versus skill-focused attention on novice and experienced performance of sensorimotor skills. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 8, 6-16

I’d almost given in to a life of stressful, error filled driving. Practice didn’t seem to be helping any further. Even the :”air gearing” while sitting at my desk seemed for naught, asides from curious looks from office mates. During my desperate search for some sort of, learning mechanism, I decided the issue was not in my arm that switched the gears too slowly, or my legs that didn’t get the clutch quite down. It was my eyes. I’d been looking at the RPMs a lot. Early on I’d asked my friend when to switch from 1rst to 2nd gear. At the time I though it was a good question. He’d given me some answer and I was trying to stick to it. That was a mistake.

Something new might work. I abandoned the prior directive and went in another direction. Sound.

Just keep it casual. Switch when the engine sounds like it should be switched. Don’t look at the RPMs. Don’t look at the gear shift.

Worked like a charm. I don’t have a convincing posthoc explanation. My overgrown explanatory powers came up with something that sounded like what I might have read in one of those motor learning articles “It’s easier to hear differences than see them. When I shifted based on the RPMs I was always late. The auditory signal is quicker and easier to keep in might with the motor pattern, which works better when you aren’t looking.“.

I don’t think that one holds up to much scrutiny.


8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2011 1:04 pm

    Welcome back to the world of manual transmissions. I always relied on the auditory (who has time to look at an RPM needle while driving?) to shift. But honestly I think it just comes down to practice. When I was 16 there were a few notorious hills I hated and dreaded. There were still times of me frequently stalling out in my first year or so. Now I hit those same hills and it is no big deal. Think it is one of those learn by doing things, and when you are forced to do something (as in forced to drive a manual to get to work every day) you’ll learn because you have to. The real question is, did you dream about it at night?

    • April 5, 2011 2:20 pm

      I’m pretty sure I did have a nightmare or two about being stuck on a hill. I would also absent mindedly air shift while sitting in my desk chair.

  2. April 5, 2011 4:14 pm

    Nice post. I learned to drive on a manual and thank my lucky stars that I did. Here in the UK you have to pay about 3-4 times as much to rent an automatic as a manual, and it’s very difficult to find automatic cars in general. I had my first go at driving a manual here a few weeks ago and it was an interesting experience as I found myself in an awkward sort of motor learning state. Since they drive on the wrong side of the road here, you push the clutch with your left foot and shift with your left hand. While the clutch felt normal with my foot, the shifting with my left hand and steering with my right hand was completely foreign. I was in a sort of hybrid space where half of my body felt right at home, and the other half felt like a fish out of water. Needless to say, I kept putting the car in the wrong gear and smacking my right hand against the window. Although, on the ride back from where we went it finally started to smooth out, so all the years of learning to shift with my right hand were not for naught and I was able to eventually transition to shifting better within a several hour time frame…. Gotta love manual!

  3. GMP permalink
    April 5, 2011 9:15 pm

    I looooove driving a stick. Practice makes perfect and, absolutely, just listen to the engine. And sticks are just so cool!

  4. Grumpy permalink
    April 7, 2011 6:45 pm

    Awesome post I can totally relate

  5. unlikelygrad permalink
    April 9, 2011 9:13 pm

    Another scientist-who-swears-by-manual-transmissions here. I learned on a stick and I’m pretty sure that I used sound as a cue for when to shift, too. Nowadays it’s so automatic that I don’t even notice.

  6. April 22, 2011 1:09 pm

    Fuck that, I’m a highly evolved creature that uses an automatic transmission.

  7. katiesci permalink
    April 25, 2011 7:00 pm

    Currently teaching my son how to drive… On a manual. I tell him to listen tithe engine but keep finding him looking at the RPMs when he should be looking at the road, er, parking lot. He hasn’t made it on the road yet.

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