Consolidation patterns of human motor memory

Sarah E. Criscimagna-Hemminger, Reza Shadmehr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


Can memories be unlearned, or is unlearning a form of acquiring a new memory that competes with the old, effectively masking it? We considered motor memories that were acquired when people learned to use a novel tool. We trained people to reach with tool A and quantified recall in error-clamp trials, i.e., trials in which the memory was reactivated but error-dependent learning was minimized. We measured both the magnitude of the memory and its resistance to change. With passage of time between acquisition and reactivation (up to 24 h), memory of A slowly declined, but with reactivation remained resistant to change. After learning of tool A, brief exposure to tool B brought performance back to baseline, i.e., apparent extinction. Yet, for up to a few minutes after A + B training, output in error-clamp trials increased from baseline to match those who had trained only in A. This spontaneous recovery and convergence demonstrated that B did not produce any unlearning of A. Rather, it masked A with a new memory that was very fragile. We tracked the memory of B as a function of time and found that within minutes it was transformed from a fragile to a more stable state. Therefore, a sudden performance error in a well-learned motor task does not produce unlearning, but rather installs a competing but fragile memory that with passage of time acquires stability. Learning not only engages processes that adapt at multiple timescales, but once practice ends, the fast states are partially transformed into slower states.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9610-9618
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number39
StatePublished - Sep 24 2008


  • Forgetting
  • Learning and memory
  • Memory
  • Motion
  • Motor activity
  • Motor control
  • Motor learning
  • Movement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Consolidation patterns of human motor memory'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this