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Joint action expertise: Behavioral, cognitive, and neural mechanisms for joint action learning

Periodic Report Summary 2 - JAXPERTISE (Joint action expertise: Behavioral, cognitive, and neural mechanisms for joint action learning)

The JAXPERTISE Project aims to understand how people learn to perform highly coordinated actions with each other, such as playing a piano duet or dancing a tango. It is notoriously difficult to achieve a high degree of coordination with others when acting together in real time – we need to form a shared plan and time our actions so that they are aligned at the level of tens of milliseconds. How this kind of coordination is achieved is something the JAXPERTISE team, comprised of several PhD students and post-doctoral researchers, has been studying in the laboratory.

In our experiments, we typically ask pairs of volunteers to perform tasks together that were specifically designed to investigate how people plan actions when acting together and how they achieve fine-grained coordination. We study groups of experts, such as musicians, as well as people who don’t have a special training in joint action. For example, in a recently developed study we asked two musicians to produce synchronous tones by hitting a drum-pad, but gave one of them a drum-pad that had a delay built in, which made coordination very difficult. This allowed us to study how long it takes musicians to adjust to different delays, and how joint performance differs from individual performance of the task using two hands.

An example for an everyday task comes from a recent study where we measured electric activity in the brain through electroencephalography in two people performing a hand movement coordination game together. Their task was to produce specific configurations of hand shapes together. Sometimes they were informed only about their own part, while at other times they were also informed about their task partner’s hand shape. The most interesting case was when we informed our participants about the relation between their actions (“you are going to make the same movements”; or “you are going to perform opposite movements”) without telling them exactly what kind of movement to prepare for. This allowed us to demonstrate that people form action plans that specify the relation between their own and a partner’s action, and that forming such joint plans facilitates coordination even when people cannot prepare for the individual actions they will perform.

A further aim of the JAXPERTISE project is to investigate how children and adults acquire individual skills by participating in coordinated joint actions with others, such as when a skilled violin teacher is guiding a learner’s hand, or when a parent is providing balancing support for a child on a bicycle. This topic will be a major focus during the second half of the project. We have already completed a study with 3-6-year-old children, investigating how children learn to perform a coordinated task that requires using both hands. The children either watched a single person demonstrating the whole task or two people demonstrating the task together. In a further condition, children were actively involved during the learning from the beginning, performing one part of the task together with an adult performing the other part. Against our initial predictions, we found that children learned to perform the task better from observation than from participating in joint action. We will now try to find out in more detail under which conditions participating in joint actions helps and under which conditions it may hinder individual learning. Furthermore, we are beginning to ask questions about creativity in the context of joint action. Can people become more creative by acting together with others?