Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behavior
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The extraction of patterns in the environment plays a critical role in many types of human learning, from motor skills to language acquisition. This process is known as statistical learning. Here we propose that statistical learning has two dissociable components: (1) perceptual binding of individual stimulus units into integrated composites and (2) storing those integrated representations for later use. Statistical learning is typically assessed using post-learning tasks, such that the two components are conflated. Our goal was to characterize the online perceptual component of statistical learning. Participants were exposed to a structured stream of repeating trisyllabic nonsense words and a random syllable stream. Online learning was indexed by an EEG-based measure that quantified neural entrainment at the frequency of the repeating words relative to that of individual syllables. Statistical learning was subsequently assessed using conventional measures in an explicit rating task and a reaction-time task. In the structured stream, neural entrainment to trisyllabic words was higher than in the random stream, increased as a function of exposure to track the progression of learning, and predicted performance on the reaction time (RT) task. These results demonstrate that monitoring this critical component of learning via rhythmic EEG entrainment reveals a gradual acquisition of knowledge whereby novel stimulus sequences are transformed into familiar composites. This online perceptual transformation is a critical component of learning.