Did we get sensorimotor adaptation wrong? implicit adaptation as direct policy updating rather than forward-model-based learning

Alkis M. Hadjiosif, John W. Krakauer, Adrian M. Haith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The human motor system can rapidly adapt its motor output in response to errors. The prevailing theory of this process posits that the motor system adapts an internal forward model that predicts the consequences of outgoing motor commands and uses this forward model to plan future movements. However, despite clear evidence that adaptive forward models exist and are used to help track the state of the body, there is no definitive evidence that such models are used in movement planning. An alternative to the forward-model-based theory of adaptation is that movements are generated based on a learned policy that is adjusted over time by movement errors directly ("direct policy learning"). This learning mechanism could act in parallel with, but independent of, any updates to a predictive forward model. Forward-model-based learning and direct policy learning generate very similar predictions about behavior in conventional adaptation paradigms. However, across three experiments with human participants (N = 47, 26 female), we show that these mechanisms can be dissociated based on the properties of implicit adaptation under mirror-reversed visual feedback. Although mirror reversal is an extreme perturbation, it still elicits implicit adaptation; however, this adaptation acts to amplify rather than to reduce errors. We show that the pattern of this adaptation over time and across targets is consistent with direct policy learning but not forward-model-based learning. Our findings suggest that the forward-model-based theory of adaptation needs to be re-examined and that direct policy learning provides a more plausible explanation of implicit adaptation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2747-2761
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number12
StatePublished - Mar 24 2021


  • Control policy
  • Distal learning
  • Forward model
  • Mirror reversal
  • Motor adaptation
  • Motor learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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