Attention, Perception and Psychophysics
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Category learning is often characterized as being supported by two separate learning systems. A verbal system learns rule-defined (RD) categories that can be described using a verbal rule and relies on executive functions (EFs) to learn via hypothesis testing. A nonverbal system learns non-rule-defined (NRD) categories that cannot be described by a verbal rule and uses automatic, procedural learning. The verbal system is dominant in that adults tend to use it during initial learning but may switch to the nonverbal system when the verbal system is unsuccessful. The nonverbal system has traditionally been thought to operate independently of EFs, but recent studies suggest that EFs may play a role in the nonverbal system-specifically, to facilitate the transition away from the verbal system. Accordingly, continuously interfering with EFs during the categorization process, so that EFs are never fully available to facilitate the transition, may be more detrimental to the nonverbal system than is temporary EF interference. Participants learned an NRD or an RD category while EFs were untaxed, taxed temporarily, or taxed continuously. When EFs were continuously taxed during NRD categorization, participants were less likely to use a nonverbal categorization strategy than when EFs were temporarily taxed, suggesting that when EFs were unavailable, the transition to the nonverbal system was hindered. For the verbal system, temporary and continuous interference had similar effects on categorization performance and on strategy use, illustrating that EFs play an important but different role in each of the category-learning systems.