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Curr Biol. 1997 Jul 1;7(7):461-7.

Abrupt learning and retinal size specificity in illusory-contour perception.

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Vision Sciences Lab, Harvard University, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA.



In behavioral studies of learning, a distinction is commonly made between gradual and abrupt improvements in performance. The learning of perceptual and motor skills is often characterized by gradual, incremental improvement, and is found not to generalize over stimulus manipulations such as changes in the size or location of the retinal image. In contrast, marked improvement in performance can occur suddenly - a phenomenon which has been termed 'insight'. Consequently, the brain mechanisms subserving the two types of learning are commonly thought of as distinct. Here, we examine learning of a perceptual task in which improvement appears to exhibit characteristics of both gradual and abrupt learning.


We describe experiments on illusory-contour perception in which the observers underwent an abrupt, dramatic improvement in performance, resembling an incident of insight. At the same time, however, the phenomenon showed a degree of stimulus-specificity that was previously thought to characterize incremental, gradual learning. The improvement was triggered only by specific visual stimuli, whereas other, quite similar, stimuli were found to be ineffective for training; the learning did not generalize to a new retinal image size, and re-training was necessary for different-sized images.


The juxtaposition of abrupt and stimulus-specific learning that we observed suggests that the distinction between the two forms of learning needs to be revised. Rather than postulating two distinct mechanisms, incremental and insightful learning need to be addressed within a single framework. In particular, the findings suggest that learning may involve interactions between multiple levels of representations of the stimulus.

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