Scientists at Boston University say that volunteers were able to concentrate on one task while being surreptitiously trained for another. The volunteers performed better than their untrained colleagues even though they were not aware of the training. Takeo Watanabe led the study. "Without noticing, we are unconsciously learning," Watanabe says. Repeated exposure to objects we are oblivious to "could have a tremendous effect on our brains", he says. The scientists report that their findings will be important for understanding how the brain compensates for environment
The volunteers named letters appearing on a screen. At the same time, a series of dots were moving, apparently randomly, around the screen. But in fact, one in 20 of the dots were moving in a specific direction. When the volunteers were later asked to detect similar dots moving in the same direction, they performed better than those who did not have the subliminal training.
But these findings do not mean the end of paying attention in class. "Although the present finding does not deny the important role of attention in perceptual learning and in motion, it indicates that the adult brain has the flexibility to adapt to certain features of the environment as a result of mere exposure," writes the team. They speculate that subliminal learning may have helped evolving humans pick up on features of their environment more efficiently.
We are learning automatically all the time, says Ken Nakayama, who studies vision at Harvard. "Patterns pass us all the time," he says, like cars and people on the street.
Subconscious learning could be an efficient way to absorb things around us without trying. "You can't pay attention to everything," he says.
Watanabe says such a learning strategy may have evolved to help us incorporate recurrent, important, information about our environment into our memory.
And the results indicate that we are not able to screen out irrelevant, unwanted information. This finding is worrying, since we are constantly bombarded with moving images from television and other media forms. "The less the world we're living in is like the one we evolved in, the more the mechanism is inappropriate," says Stickgold.
Source: Boston University; Nature
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