Investigating Timing and Motor Control

Dagmar Sternad

University Distinguished Professor Dagmar Sternad, biology/ECE, was awarded a $323K NSF grant for “Emergent motor timing influences perceptual timing.” This grant is in collaboration with Joo-Hyun Song from Brown University. Precisely timed integration of perceptual, cognitive, and motor processes is at the root of all successful behavior in daily life. The research bridges perceptual psychology and motor neuroscience to investigate mechanisms underlying the timing in perceptual-motor skills and the perception of similar time intervals. Insights into how temporal structure in actions affects time perception will lead to insight into sensorimotor impairments in neurological conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder.

Abstract Source: NSF

Many real-world behaviors, such as tapping to a musical beat, throwing a ball, or crossing the street, depend on precise timing among perception, cognition, and motor action. Luckily, our motor systems usually operate seamlessly in concert with our perceptual and cognitive processes. Despite how they work together in the real world, these aspects of behavior have been largely studied separately in the laboratory. While that approach allows scientific rigor and has provided significant insights into each subsystem, it says little about their interaction, which may be fundamental to understanding human behavior. A better understanding of how the temporal aspects of perceptual, cognitive, and motor behaviors are interrelated also has the potential to advance technological innovations, e.g., in cognitive neural prosthetics, a novel human-computer interface for helping paralyzed patients and patients with amputations. Identifying the temporal interactions among cognitive, perceptual, and motor functions has other translational potential for developing new rehabilitation paradigms for populations with impaired motor and perceptual timing.

This research program aims to evaluate whether and how timing in perception and motor control involves shared mechanisms that ensure seamless integration and plastic co-modification. The experimental approach combines a motor skill, throwing a ball in an augmented reality environment, with a time perception task. Objective 1 explores how motor timing that emerges from discrete throwing actions modifies perceptual timing. Objective 2 extends this question to situations requiring rhythmic throwing actions. Objective 3 examines whether learned coupling of motor and perceptual timing persists in the longer term. Taken together, this quantitative approach to understanding the connections between perceptual and motor timing will contribute to developing a unified theory of timing control in real-world contexts. The female investigator team has also identified multiple outreach activities to foster and communicate the integration of scientific research and STEM education and to increase minority representation in the cognitive, perceptual, and motor sciences.

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Related Faculty: Dagmar Sternad

Related Departments:Electrical & Computer Engineering