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Q J Exp Psychol (Hove). 2017 Apr;70(4):664-674. Epub 2016 Mar 17.

The effects of ordinal load on incidental temporal learning.

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a Department of Psychology and Educational Sciences , University of Porto , Porto , Portugal.
b Department of Psychology , University of Faro , Faro , Portugal.
c Neurobiology of Language Department , Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics , Nijmegen , The Netherlands.
d Neurocognition of Language Department , Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour , Nijmegen , The Netherlands.


How can we grasp the temporal structure of events? A few studies have indicated that representations of temporal structure are acquired when there is an intention to learn, but not when learning is incidental. Response-to-stimulus intervals, uncorrelated temporal structures, unpredictable ordinal information, and lack of metrical organization have been pointed out as key obstacles to incidental temporal learning, but the literature includes piecemeal demonstrations of learning under all these circumstances. We suggest that the unacknowledged effects of ordinal load may help reconcile these conflicting findings, ordinal load referring to the cost of identifying the sequence of events (e.g., tones, locations) where a temporal pattern is embedded. In a first experiment, we manipulated ordinal load into simple and complex levels. Participants learned ordinal-simple sequences, despite their uncorrelated temporal structure and lack of metrical organization. They did not learn ordinal-complex sequences, even though there were no response-to-stimulus intervals nor unpredictable ordinal information. In a second experiment, we probed learning of ordinal-complex sequences with strong metrical organization, and again there was no learning. We conclude that ordinal load is a key obstacle to incidental temporal learning. Further analyses showed that the effect of ordinal load is to mask the expression of temporal knowledge, rather than to prevent learning.


Incidental learning; Ordinal information; Sequence learning; Serial recall; Temporal structure

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