Just being exposed to things we don’t know — new objects or species of animals, for example — puts us in learning mode, new research has revealed, and makes us more ready to learn the new thing later.
Once we encounter a new thing, our brain is able to capitalize on a brief learning period later on to gain more knowledge about it. The new study should help scientists understand this type of subconscious learning, or latent learning.
Much of how we perceive different things in the world has to do with categorizing them, but the ways we learn about these categories are often not explicit. For example, we learn that “cat” and “dog” are different categories primarily by being exposed to cats and dogs, rather than sitting down and learning the details.
In this study, the researchers wanted to learn more about how such accidental exposure helps us learn different categories.
“We often observe new things in the real world without having the goal of learning more,” says psychologist Vladimir Sloutsky of Ohio State University.
“But we’ve found that just being exposed to it makes an impression on our minds and makes us ready to learn about it later.”
The team conducted five different experiments involving a total of 438 adult volunteers. Researchers used a custom computer game to expose participants to unknown fantasy creatures, which in some cases were split into two categories – categories similar to cats and dogs.
During the initial phase, participants had to react as quickly as possible to a creature jumping to either a red panel on the left side of the screen or a blue panel on the right side. Unbeknownst to the participants, the side the creatures jumped to was always the same as their category, and there were two different types of category structures.
While no one understood the “secret” categories in this initial phase, it was clear from the results that people who had been exposed to the creatures in the initial phase were able to learn the categories faster.
Later in the experiments, there was a period of explicit learning, during which the invented categories – “flurps” and “jalets” – were revealed to the participants. The teaching also consisted of explaining how to distinguish the creatures of the two categories (tails and hands of different colors, for example).
Volunteers exposed in advance to images of “flurps” and “jalets” were much quicker to grasp the differences between the categories of creatures, even though they were not exposed to any sort of instruction in learning during the initial phase.
“Participants who were exposed to category A and B creatures early were able to become familiar with their different feature distributions, such as blue-tailed creatures tended to have brown hands and orange-tailed creatures tended to have green thumbs,” says psychologist Layla. Unger from Ohio State University.
“Then when explicit learning came along, it was easier to attach a label to those distributions and form the categories.”
In experiment five, images in the initial phase were accompanied by one of two randomly assigned sounds, and participants were asked to respond to the sound rather than the image – in other words, they had no no need to pay attention to the creature at all. .
Volunteers who glimpsed “flurps” and “jalets” during the initial phase with sounds performed even better in the learning phase, suggesting that much of what was absorbed was done at a higher level. subconscious. A simple exposure was enough to start learning.
“Exposure to the creatures left participants with latent knowledge, but they weren’t ready to tell the difference between the two categories. They hadn’t learned yet, but they were ready to learn,” says Unger.
Studies of this type of latent learning are rare, and future studies could expand the current analysis of adults to also examine the process in infants and children.
“It’s been very difficult to diagnose when latent learning occurs,” says Sloutsky.
“But this research was able to tell the difference between latent learning and what people learn during explicit teaching.”
The research has been published in Psychological sciences.