Boston University psychologists find neurological mechanism for subliminal learning

(Boston) -- Watch out -- you may learn something and not even know it, says Takeo Watanabe, an associate professor of psychology at Boston University's Center for Brain and Memory. Watanabe and his team recently pinpointed the mechanism that makes subliminal learning work. Watanabe will present the team's findings at the American Psychological Society meeting in Los Angeles, May 27 and 28.

Long considered the realm of science fiction, subliminal learning occurs when individuals are influenced by a stimulus they are unaware of, like words played back below the threshold of hearing or images flashed on screen faster than the eye can perceive. Watanabe's recent findings grew out of his team's previous work in which they established that subliminal learning is real and that the brain is capable of learning without consciously focused attention.

In this latest research, Watanabe and his team uncovered the mechanism that primes the subconscious, enabling individuals to learn a task without actually realizing it. They also showed this type of learning is retained, giving a new interpretation to how long a learned behavior is retained in the visual cortex -- an area of the brain thought to be fixed very early in life.

To establish how the mechanism worked, Watanabe's team devised a series of perception tests. Initially, participants watched a computer screen as a series of letters flashed by and were instructed to signal when they saw a gray letter. As individuals concentrated on watching for gray letters, sets of dots jiggled on the screen in areas that were at the periphery of the visual field. Five to 10 percent of the dots moved together in a coherent direction -- a fraction smaller than that easily detectible by the human eye. Letters flashing on the screen were randomly paired with the moving dots.

From this test, the researchers established the length of time it took each participant to identify the direction and coherent

Contact: Ann Marie Menting/Brad Plummer
Boston University

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