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Nature. 2001 Oct 25;413(6858):844-8.

Perceptual learning without perception.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Boston University, 64 Cummington Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA.


The brain is able to adapt rapidly and continually to the surrounding environment, becoming increasingly sensitive to important and frequently encountered stimuli. It is often claimed that this adaptive learning is highly task-specific, that is, we become more sensitive to the critical signals in the tasks we attend to. Here, we show a new type of perceptual learning, which occurs without attention, without awareness and without any task relevance. Subjects were repeatedly presented with a background motion signal so weak that its direction was not visible; the invisible motion was an irrelevant background to the central task that engaged the subject's attention. Despite being below the threshold of visibility and being irrelevant to the central task, the repetitive exposure improved performance specifically for the direction of the exposed motion when tested in a subsequent suprathreshold test. These results suggest that a frequently presented feature sensitizes the visual system merely owing to its frequency, not its relevance or salience.

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