Title:  Noise, delays and development of expertise

PI:  John Milton

Funding Agency:  NSF

Division: Behavioral and Cognitive Science

Committee:  Perception, Action and Cognition

Amount: $ 319,000

Dates: 09/2006 - 08/2009


How does one develop expertise in the performance of a difficult motor skill?  Through research conducted on a challenging motor skill – balancing a stick on the fingertip – some of the nervous system’s secrets for expertise development have been discovered.  One of these secrets makes use of random movements of the fingertip: random hand movements are able to correct a stick’s wobbles far faster than a person would be able to react to seeing them.  A second secret is to decrease the role of conscious efforts to make corrective movements – analogous to the waiter’s trick of not looking at a bowl of soup while carrying it on a tray.  Thus there is more to stick balancing than just poise and sharp reflexes! 

With NSF support Dr. Milton brings together an international team of scientists to work with undergraduate students to understand how the nervous system develops expertise in stick balancing.  There are three major advantages offered by the study of stick balancing: 1) the motor task is sufficiently difficult to allow identification of levels of expertise; 2) it is well enough characterized to permit careful comparisons between observation and prediction; and 3) expertise can be dramatically increased with just a few days of intensive practice.  Thus it becomes possible to carefully examine a variety of relationships, for example, between skill-related changes in balancing limb kinematics and changes in stick movements.  Particular emphasis is given to determining whether the nervous system’s tricks for expertise – diversion of attention and random movements – can be used to allow an individual to more rapidly increase expertise.  The motion science and research are integrated in a manner that both excites and motivates students while at the same time teaching them to work effectively in international teams.  Since proper balance control is essential for the expert performance of many motor tasks, it is anticipated that studies of stick balancing will translate into the design of more efficient teaching, coaching and neuro-rehabilitative strategies.