Learning & memory (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.)
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Humans are capable of rapidly extracting regularities from environmental input, a process known as statistical learning. This type of learning typically occurs automatically, through passive exposure to environmental input. The presumed function of statistical learning is to optimize processing, allowing the brain to more accurately predict and prepare for incoming input. In this study, we ask whether the function of statistical learning may be enhanced through supplementary explicit training, in which underlying regularities are explicitly taught rather than simply abstracted through exposure. Learners were randomly assigned either to an explicit group or an implicit group. All learners were exposed to a continuous stream of repeating nonsense words. Prior to this implicit training, learners in the explicit group received supplementary explicit training on the nonsense words. Statistical learning was assessed through a speeded reaction-time (RT) task, which measured the extent to which learners used acquired statistical knowledge to optimize online processing. Both RTs and brain potentials revealed significant differences in online processing as a function of training condition. RTs showed a crossover interaction; responses in the explicit group were faster to predictable targets and marginally slower to less predictable targets relative to responses in the implicit group. P300 potentials to predictable targets were larger in the explicit group than in the implicit group, suggesting greater recruitment of controlled, effortful processes. Taken together, these results suggest that information abstracted through passive exposure during statistical learning may be processed more automatically and with less effort than information that is acquired explicitly.