A novel task for the investigation of action acquisition

Stafford, Tom; Thirkettle, Martin; Walton, Tom; Vautrelle, Nicolas; Hetherington, Len; Port, Michael; Gurney, Kevin and Redgrave, Pete (2012). A novel task for the investigation of action acquisition. PLoS ONE, 7(6), article no. e37749.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0037749


We present a behavioural task designed for the investigation of how novel instrumental actions are discovered and learnt. The task consists of free movement with a manipulandum, during which the full range of possible movements can be explored by the participant and recorded. A subset of these movements, the ‘target’, is set to trigger a reinforcing signal. The task is to discover what movements of the manipulandum evoke the reinforcement signal. Targets can be defined in spatial, temporal, or kinematic terms, can be a combination of these aspects, or can represent the concatenation of actions into a larger gesture. The task allows the study of how the specific elements of behaviour which cause the reinforcing signal are identified, refined and stored by the participant. The task provides a paradigm where the exploratory motive drives learning and as such we view it as in the tradition of Thorndike [1]. Most importantly it allows for repeated measures, since when a novel action is acquired the criterion for triggering reinforcement can be changed requiring a new action to be discovered. Here, we present data using both humans and rats as subjects, showing that our task is easily scalable in difficulty, adaptable across species, and produces a rich set of behavioural measures offering new and valuable insight into the action learning process.

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