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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Jun 15, 1993; 90(12): 5718–5722.

Attentional control of early perceptual learning.


The performance of adult humans in simple visual tasks improves dramatically with practice. This improvement is highly specific to basic attributes of the trained stimulus, suggesting that the underlying changes occur at low-level processing stages in the brain, where different orientations and spatial frequencies are handled by separate channels. We asked whether these practice effects are determined solely by activity in stimulus-driven mechanisms or whether high-level attentional mechanisms, which are linked to the perceptual task, might control the learning process. We found that practicing one task did not improve performance in an alternative task, even though both tasks used exactly the same visual stimuli but depended on different stimulus attributes (either orientation of local elements or global shape). Moreover, even when the experiment was designed so that the same responses were associated with the same stimuli (although subjects were instructed to attend to the attribute underlying one task), learning did not transfer from one task to the other. These results suggest that specific high-level attentional mechanisms, controlling changes at early visual processing levels, are essential in perceptual learning.

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