Gait adaptations, in response to novel environments, devices or changes to the body, can be driven by the continuous optimization of energy expenditure. However, whether energy optimization is primarily an implicit process – occurring automatically and with minimal cognitive attention-or an explicit process-occurring as a result of a conscious, attention-demanding, strategy-remains unclear. Here, we use a dual-task paradigm to test whether energy optimization during walking is primarily an implicit or explicit process. To create our primary energy optimization task, we used lower-limb exoskeletons to shift people’s energetically optimal step frequency to frequencies lower than normally preferred. Our secondary task, designed to draw explicit attention from the optimization task, was an auditory tone discrimination task. We found that adding this secondary task did not disrupt energy optimization during walking; participants in our dual-task experiment adapted their step frequency toward the optima by an amount similar to participants in our previous single-task experiment. We also found that performance on the tone discrimination task did not worsen when participants were optimizing for energetic cost; accuracy scores and reaction times remained unchanged when the exoskeleton altered the energy optimal gaits. Survey responses suggest that dual-task participants were largely unaware of the changes they made to their gait to optimize energy, whereas single-task participants were more aware of their gait changes yet did not leverage this explicit awareness to improve gait optimization. Collectively, our results suggest that energy optimization is primarily an implicit process, allowing attentional resources to be directed toward other cognitive and motor objectives during walking.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience