Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

The Impact of Orienting Attention in Fast Task-Irrelevant Perceptual Learning

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

The Impact of Orienting Attention in Fast Task-Irrelevant Perceptual Learning

Article excerpt

Published online: 28 January 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Task-irrelevant perceptual learning (TIPL) refers to the phenomenon where the stimulus features are learned when they are consistently presented at behaviorally relevant times (e.g., with task targets or rewards). Studies on the role of attention in TIPL have found that attention negatively impacts this type of learning; however, these studies involved stimuli that were completely irrelevant to the subjects and that, when noticed, were distracting to the subjects' task. Here, we asked whether attention would have a beneficial impact on learning in the case where the target-paired stimuli were relevant to a secondary task that subjects were required to perform. We conducted three experiments in adult subjects, using the fast-TIPL paradigm (which allows one to study TIPL with as little as a single trial of exposure). The results from Experiments 1 and 2 showed that fast-TIPL occurred for the target-paired stimuli but that the manipulation of attention increased performance for stimuli presented after the target. Experiment 3 was conducted to address whether the direction of attention positively or negatively impacted fast-TIPL and to better control for the effects of attention. The results of this experiment demonstrate that in the case of fast-TIPL, exogenously directed attention aids in the memorization of target-paired stimuli. Overall, our results demonstrate that attention operates in a beneficial manner in fast-TIPL, where the target-paired stimuli are relevant to a secondary task that subjects perform.

Keywords Attention in learning . Perceptual learning . Dual-task performance


How our perceptual systems encode information is of central importance to the understanding of human cognition. A vast amount of research has examined the roles of attention and reinforcement in learning and memory formation. While it is clear that multiple factors guide how we encode information (Seitz & Watanabe, 2005, 2009), the interplay between these factors remains unclear. Recently, a number of labs have investigated a new learning paradigm that shows great promise in dissociating factors that contribute to the encoding of information. These studies have found that processing the target of a rapid serial detection task can facilitate the encoding of information paired with the task targets (Dewald, Sinnett, & Doumas, 2011; Lin, Pype, Murray, & Boynton, 2010; Seitz & Dinse, 2007; Seitz & Watanabe, 2005, 2009; Swallow & Jiang, 2010, 2011; Watanabe, Nanez, & Sasaki, 2001). In these studies, the target-paired stimuli were irrelevant to the serial detection task that the subjects were asked to conduct, and we therefore call this task-irrelevant learning (TIL).

The phenomenon of TIL has been studied in the most detail in the case of perceptual learning. Research into taskirrelevant perceptual learning (TIPL; Seitz & Watanabe, 2009) has demonstrated that subjects learn and become better at detecting or discriminating task-irrelevant stimuli when they are consistently presented at behaviorally relevant times (Seitz & Watanabe, 2005), such as when task targets (Seitz, Lefebvre, Watanabe, & Jolicoeur, 2005; Seitz & Watanabe, 2003) or rewards (Seitz & Watanabe, 2005) are presented. TIPL has been found for motion processing (Watanabe et al., 2002), orientation processing (Nishina, Seitz, Kawato, & Watanabe, 2007), critical flicker fusion thresholds (Seitz, Nanez, Holloway, & Watanabe, 2005, 2006), contour integration (Rosenthal & Humphreys, 2010), auditory formant processing (Seitz et al., 2010), and phonetic processing (Vlahou, Protopapas, & Seitz, 2011; Vlahou, Seitz, & Protopapas, 2009) and is arguably a basic mechanism of learning in the brain that spans multiple levels of processing and sensory modalities.

While the goal of initial studies of TIPL was to examine whether perceptual learning could occur in the absence of attention (Seitz & Watanabe, 2003; Watanabe et al. …

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