Having your cake and eating it: Faster responses with reduced muscular activation while learning a temporal interval

  • Thomas Elizabeth
  • French Robert
  • Alizee Guy
  • Coull Jennifer


We examined how motor responses to a stimulus evolve as individuals learn to predict when a stimulus will appear, by comparing responses to a regular versus irregular stimulus train. The study was conducted with two groups of adults — one responded to the regular appearance of a visual stimulus every 3 s (R group) and the second responded to the irregular presentation of the same stimulus (IR group) at intervals varying between 2 and 4 s. Participants responded to the appearance of the stimulus by bending over to press a button that was slightly out of reach. This whole body reach requires muscular activation at the ankles. Over the course of 50 consecutive responses, the response times in the R group were found to decrease more than those for participants in the IR group. The electromyographs (EMGs) of two ankle antagonist muscles, the anterior tibialis and soleus were also modified as participants progressively learnt the temporal regularity of a sequence. Tibialis onset times for the R group were found to decrease faster. A less predictable observation was the faster reduction in post stimulus activation of the tibialis muscle for the R group. Soleus muscle deactivation is an indicator of movement preparation. EMG integrals for this muscle a little before stimulus onset showed a trend for greater decrease in the R group. In summary, our study shows that temporal expectations over repeated stimulus presentation permit the dynamic optimization of motor activity with progressively faster response times, muscle activation onset times and lower muscle activation amplitudes.