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Vision Res. 2000;40(1):97-109.

Mechanisms of generalization in perceptual learning.

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Department of Psychology, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ 07102, USA.


Learning in many visual perceptual tasks has been shown to be specific to practiced stimuli, while new stimuli have to be learned from scratch. Here we demonstrate generalization using a novel paradigm in motion discrimination where learning has been previously shown to be specific. We trained subjects to discriminate directions of moving dots, and verified the previous results that learning does not transfer from a trained direction to a new one. However, by tracking the subjects' performance across time in the new direction, we found that their speed of learning doubled. Therefore, we found generalization in a task previously considered too difficult to generalize. We also replicated, in a second experiment, transfer following training with 'easy' stimuli, when the difference between motion directions is enlarged. In a third experiment we found a new mode of generalization: after mastering the task with an easy stimulus, subjects who have practiced briefly to discriminate the easy stimulus in a new direction generalize to a difficult stimulus in that direction. This generalization depends on both the mastering and the brief practice. The specificity of perceptual learning and the dichotomy between learning of 'easy' versus 'difficult' tasks have been assumed to involve different learning processes at different cortical areas. Here we show how to interpret these results in terms of signal detection theory. With the assumption of limited computational capacity, we obtain the observed phenomena--direct transfer and acceleration of learning--for increasing levels of task difficulty. Human perceptual learning and generalization, therefore, concur with a generic discrimination system.

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