Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The ability to discover regularities in the environment, such as syllable patterns in speech, is known as statistical learning. Previous studies have shown that statistical learning is accompanied by neural entrainment, in which neural activity temporally aligns with repeating patterns over time. However, it is unclear whether these rhythmic neural dynamics play a functional role in statistical learning, or whether they largely reflect the downstream consequences of learning, such as the enhanced perception of learned words in speech. To better understand this issue, we manipulated participants’ neural entrainment during statistical learning using continuous rhythmic visual stimulation. Participants were exposed to a speech stream of repeating nonsense words while viewing either (1) a visual stimulus with a “congruent” rhythm that aligned with the word structure, (2) a visual stimulus with an incongruent rhythm, or (3) a static visual stimulus. Statistical learning was subsequently measured using both an explicit and implicit test. Participants in the congruent condition showed a significant increase in neural entrainment over auditory regions at the relevant word frequency, over and above effects of passive volume conduction, indicating that visual stimulation successfully altered neural entrainment within relevant neural substrates. Critically, during the subsequent implicit test, participants in the congruent condition showed an enhanced ability to predict upcoming syllables and stronger neural phase synchronization to component words, suggesting that they had gained greater sensitivity to the statistical structure of the speech stream relative to the incongruent and static groups. This learning benefit could not be attributed to strategic processes, as participants were largely unaware of the contingencies between the visual stimulation and embedded words. These results indicate that manipulating neural entrainment during exposure to regularities influences statistical learning outcomes, suggesting that neural entrainment may functionally contribute to statistical learning. Our findings encourage future studies using non-invasive brain stimulation methods to further understand the role of entrainment in statistical learning.
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