We are constantly learning new things as we go about our lives. Inaddition to learning new facts, procedures, and concepts, we are alsorefining our sensory abilities. How and when these sensorymodifications take place is the focus of intense study and debate. Innew work, researchers at Boston University and the University ofMontreal unify two lines of research--our understanding of classicallearning and a phenomenon known as the attentional blink--to achieve animportant demonstration that high-level mental processing is requiredeven for subliminal learning.
Subliminal learning is a low-level perceptual learning process thatcan occur without awareness of what is learned, and it is thought tooccur in manner similar to that of learning based on stimuli of whichwe are aware. Previous work has shown that subliminal learning canoccur for motion stimuli that are paired with the targets of aletter-identification task. To investigate whether high-levelprocessing is necessary for unconscious, automatic learning, theauthors build on previous work that had identified what is known as an"attentional blink." This "blink," which is revealed when subjectsattempt to identify certain images shown in rapid succession, has beenshown to result from a bottleneck in high-level processing (such asdecision making and memory encoding) but does not affect perceptual andsemantical processing.
In the new work, published in Current Biology, Dr. Aaron Seitzand colleagues examined whether learning can occur for stimulipresented subliminally during the attentional blink. The authors showthat whereas subjects are able to learn from subliminal stimulipresented outside of the time window of the attentional blink, nolearning occurs for stimuli presented during the attentional blink. Theauthors go on to show that this lack of learning during the attentionalblink is not due to a deficit of sensory processing during the blink,implying that the learning results from an interaction betweenhigh-level and low-level processing. The findings represent animportant step toward increasing our understanding of the mechanismsthat underlie our ability to direct attention to importantenvironmental factors and to learn from them.
The researchers include Aaron Seitz and Takeo Watanabe of BostonUniversity in Boston, MA; Christine Lefebvre and Pierre Jolicoeur ofUniversité de Montréal in Montreal, Canada. This work was supported by the NSERC, CRCP, U de M., and NIH.
Seitz et al.: "Requirement for High Level Processing inSubliminal Learning." Publishing in Current Biology, Vol. 15,R753-R755, September 20, 2005. www.current-biology.com
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