An external focus of attention does not always benefit motor learning: evidence from visuomotor adaptation


We asked if the benefits of adopting an external focus of attention, as observed in the skill acquisition literature, extend to visuomotor adaptation. Participants reached in a virtual environment where a cursor (1) accurately represented participants’ hand motion (48 trials), (2) was rotated 40° clockwise relative to participants’ hand motion (160 trials), and (3) was removed such that participants reached in the absence of cursor feedback (24 trials) to assess explicit adaptation. Participants were divided into 3 groups: External focus (EXT, n=30), Internal focus (INT, n=30) and Control (CTL, n=30). The EXT group was instructed to focus on the path taken by the cursor, while the INT group was instructed to focus on the path taken by their hand. The CTL group was not provided with attentional focus instructions. Post-experiment reports indicated that participants followed the attentional focus instructions, such that when asked to draw “the path your hand made”, participants in the EXT group drew trajectories that more closely represented the path the cursor took compared to the INT group. As for reaching performance, analyses of angular errors at peak velocity revealed that participants in the INT and CTL groups were able to adapt their reaches to a similar extent across mid-to-late rotated reach training trials. Surprisingly, participants in the EXT group adapted significantly less across reach training and exhibited less explicit adaptation compared to the INT and CTL groups. Together, these results suggest that an external focus of attention can interfere with strategic reaching in visuomotor adaptation.