These findings might have real-world implications for people undergoing physical rehabilitation, according to researchers from Northwestern University.
People who use computers regularly are constantly mapping the movements of their hand and computer mouse to the cursor on the screen. All that pointing and clicking — the average computer user performs more than 7,000 mouse clicks a week — changes the way the brain generalizes movements, said Konrad Kording, Ph.D., of Northwestern University and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
“Computers produce this problem that screens are of different sizes and mice have different gains,” he said. “We want to quickly learn about these so that we do not need to relearn all possible movements once we switch to a new computer. If you have broad generalization, then you need to move the mouse just once, and there you are calibrated.”
The study found that Chinese migrant workers accustomed to using computers made broader generalizations when it comes to movement learning than a group of age- and education-matched migrant workers who had never used a computer before.
While both computer users and non-users learned equally quickly how to move a cursor while their hand was hidden from view, those who had used computers before more readily generalized what they learned about the movement of the cursor in one direction to movements made in other directions.
To delve deeper, the researchers studied another group of 10 people unfamiliar with computers, both before and after they spent two weeks playing computer games that required intensive mouse use for two hours each day. That two weeks was enough to convert the generalization patterns of the computer-naïve individuals to that of regular computer users, the researchers reported.
“Our data revealed that generalization has to be learned, and we should not expect it to happen automatically,” said Kunlin Wei, Ph.D., of China’s Peking University, who works in Kording’s lab and was the study’s first author.
“The big question in the clinic setting is whether supervised rehabilitation can lead to functional improvement at home. Thus, the next natural step for us is to experiment on how to make this generalization from clinics to home happen more effectively.”
“If we could make patients generalize perfectly from robotic training in the hospital to drinking tea at home, then training in the hospital would maximally improve everyday life,” Kording added.
The study was published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.
Source: Cell Press