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Our nervous systems can learn optimal control policies in response to changes to our bodies, tasks, and movement contexts. For example, humans can learn to adapt their control policy in walking contexts where the energy-optimal policy is shifted along variables such as step frequency or step width. However, it is unclear how the nervous system determines which ways to adapt its control policy. Here, we asked how human participants explore through variations in their control policy to identify more optimal policies in new contexts. We created new contexts using exoskeletons that apply assistive torques to each ankle at each walking step. We analyzed four variables that spanned the levels of the whole movement, the joint, and the muscle: step frequency, ankle angle range, total soleus activity, and total medial gastrocnemius activity. We found that, across all of these analyzed variables, variability increased upon initial exposure to new contexts and then decreased with experience. This led to adaptive changes in the magnitude of specific variables, and these changes were correlated with reduced energetic cost. The timescales by which adaptive changes progressed and variability decreased were faster for some variables than others, suggesting a reduced search space within which the nervous system continues to optimize its policy. These collective findings support the principle that exploration through general variability leads to specific adaptation toward optimal movement policies.


NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Current Biology. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Current Biology, volume 32, issue 10, in 2022.

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