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Atten Percept Psychophys. 2009 Jan;71(1):5-7. doi: 10.3758/APP.71.1.5.

Sensory noise explains auditory frequency discrimination learning induced by training with identical stimuli.

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Auditory Perception and Cognition Laboratory, Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455-0344, USA.


Thresholds in various visual and auditory perception tasks have been found to improve markedly with practice at intermediate levels of task difficulty. Recently, however, there have been reports that training with identical stimuli, which, by definition, were impossible to discriminate correctly beyond chance, could induce as much discrimination learning as could training with different stimuli. These surprising findings have been interpreted as evidence that discrimination learning can occur in the absence of perceived differences between stimuli and need not involve the fine-tuning of a discrimination mechanism. Here, we show that these counterintuitive findings of discrimination learning without discrimination can be understood simply by considering the effect of internal noise on sensory representations. Because of such noise, physically identical stimuli are unlikely to be perceived as being strictly identical. We show that, given empirically derived levels of sensory noise, perceived differences evoked by identical stimuli are actually not much smaller than those induced by the physical differences typically used in discrimination-learning experiments. We suggest that findings of discrimination learning with identical stimuli can be explained without implicating any fundamentally new learning mechanism.

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