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Unconscious Learning


Reward Elicits Unconscious Learning

A study by researchers at UC Riverside and Boston University challenges assumption that adults learn only by paying attention.

(March 12, 2009)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – A study by researchers at the University of California, Riverside and Boston University challenges the popular assumption that adults learn only by paying attention to something. The study, published today in the journal Neuron, found that pairing a visual stimulus with a reward is enough to cause learning, even when an individual is unaware of the stimulus paired with the reward.

The findings about unconscious learning could have implications for treating conditions such as amblyopia (lazy eye), or developing training techniques to help radiologists identify tumors or airport screeners recognize weapons faster and more accurately, said Aaron Seitz, assistant professor of psychology at UC Riverside.

Seitz conducted the three-year study with Dongho Kim and Takeo Watanabe from the Boston University Department of Psychology.

The researchers asked study participants not to eat or drink for five hours before they were placed in front of computer monitors and told to focus on a central spot and enjoy an occasional drop of water delivered to their mouths through a tube. Visual stimuli that were paired with the liquid rewards were viewed with one eye and were imperceptible to the subjects because contour-rich patterns were continuously flashed to their other eye.

The researchers found that pairing stimuli and reward was sufficient to cause learning, even when the subject was not aware of the learned stimuli or stimulus-reward contingencies. The learning effects were specific to the eye receiving the stimuli, a condition indicative of an early, monocular stage of visual processing in the brain.

“These results demonstrate that visual learning in humans can be driven by reward signals and that this learning can take place in an automatic way and can affect early stages of visual processing,” Seitz said.

“To the extent that more progress is made in understanding the basic science, potential applications are very rich,” he said. For example, can training with reinforcement principles be used to condition a radiologist to see a tumor?

The study of perceptual learning – a field of research that emerged about 20 years ago – is important to understanding brain processes, mechanisms of learning, the development of training techniques for tasks requiring specialized sensory skills, and the development of clinical applications to rehabilitate patients with sensory deficits, Seitz said.

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