The role of attention in motor control

Keith R. Lohse, Matt Jones, Alice F. Healy, David E. Sherwood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Scopus citations


Research on the focus of attention (FOA) in motor control has found a consistent advantage for focusing externally (on the effects of one's actions) compared to focusing internally (on one's body mechanics). However, most of this work has concentrated on movement outcomes, leaving open the question of how external attention changes the movement itself. Somewhat paradoxically, recent research has found that external attention also increases trial-by-trial movement variability. To explain these findings, we propose a theory of attention in motor control, grounded in optimal control theory, wherein variability is minimized along attended aspects of the movement. Internal attention thus reduces variability in individual bodily dimensions (positions and velocities of effectors), whereas external attention minimizes variability in the task outcome. Because the goal of a task defines a dimension in the movement space that is generally oblique to bodily dimensions, external attention should increase correlations among bodily dimensions while allowing their individual variances to grow. The current experiment tests these predictions in a dart-throwing task. External FOA led to more accurate performance and increased variability in the motion of the throwing arm, concomitant with stronger correlations among bodily dimensions (shoulder, elbow, and wrist positions and velocities) in a manner consistent with the task kinematics. These findings indicate a shift in the control policy of the motor system, consistent with the proposed theory. These results suggest an important role of attention as a control parameter in the regulation of the motor system, and more broadly illustrate the importance of cognitive mechanisms in motor behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)930-948
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2014


  • Attention
  • Motor control
  • Motor learning


Dive into the research topics of 'The role of attention in motor control'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this