Your brain is ready to learn about new things without you realizing it

Simply being exposed to things we’re unfamiliar with — new objects or animal species, for example — puts us in learning mode, new research has revealed, and makes us more ready to learn about the new later on.

Once we encounter something new, our brains can take advantage of a short learning period later to gain more knowledge about it. The new study should help scientists understand this kind of unconscious learning or latent learning

Much of how we perceive different things in the world has to do with categorizing them, but the way we learn these categories is often not explicit. For example, we learn that “cat” and “dog” are different categories, mainly through exposure to cats and dogs, rather than sitting down and learning the details.

In this study, the researchers wanted to learn more about how such incidental exposure contributes to our learning different categories.

“We often perceive new things in the real world without wanting to know more about it”, says psychologist Vladimir Sloutsky from Ohio State University.

“But we found that just exposure to it impresses us and leads us to learn about it later.”

The team conducted five different experiments with a total of 438 adult volunteers. Researchers used a modified computer game to expose participants to unknown fantastical creatures, which in some cases were split into two categories — categories similar to cats and dogs.

During the initial phase, the participants were instructed to respond as quickly as possible to a creature that jumps to a red panel on the left side of the screen or to a blue panel on the right. Unbeknownst to the participants, the side the creatures jumped to was always the same as their category, and there were a number of different types of category structures.

Although no one discovered the “secret” categories in this initial phase, it was clear from the results that people exposed to the creatures in the initial phase were able to learn the categories more quickly.

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 included explaining how to distinguish between creatures in the two categories (e.g. different colored tails and hands).

Examples of the creatures used for the experiments. (Unger and Sloutsky, Psychol. Sci., 2022)

The volunteers who were pre-exposed to pictures of ‘flurps’ and ‘jalets’ were much more likely to understand the differences between the creature categories, although they were not exposed to any kind of learning instruction in the initial stages.

“Participants who received early exposure to Category A and B creatures might become familiar with their different distributions of traits, such as that blue-tailed creatures tended to have brown hands, and orange-tailed creatures tended to have green hands.” to have,” says psychologist Layla Unger from Ohio State University.

“When the explicit learning came along, it was easier to put a label on those distributions and form the categories.”

In experiment five, the images were initially accompanied by one of two randomly assigned sounds, and the participants had to respond to the sound rather than the image — in other words, they didn’t have to pay attention to the creature at all.

The volunteers who glimpsed ‘flurps’ and ‘jalets’ with sounds in the initial phase still fared better in the learning phase, suggesting that much of what was absorbed was done at a subconscious level. Simple exposure was enough to start learning.

“Because of the exposure to the creatures, the participants had some latent knowledge, but they weren’t ready to see the difference between the two categories. They hadn’t learned it yet, but they were ready to learn,” Unger explains.

Studies of this type of latent learning are rare, and future studies could expand current adult analysis to include the process in infants and children.

“It was very difficult to diagnose when latent learning occurs,” says Sloutsky

“But this research was able to distinguish between latent learning and what people learn during explicit education.”

The research was published in psychological science

#brain #ready #learn #realizing

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