Your Brain Is Ready to Learn About New Things Without You Even Realizing

According to recent study, simply being exposed to things we're unfamiliar with - new items or animal species, for example — puts us in learning mode and makes us better prepared to learn about the new thing later on.

Once we've encountered something new, our brains can take advantage of a brief time of learning later on to learn more about it. The new research should aid scientists in better understanding this type of latent or subconscious learning.

Much of how we see objects in the environment is based on categorizing them, but how we acquire these categories isn't always obvious. For example, rather than being sat down and taught the specifics, we learn that 'cat' and 'dog' are separate categories by being exposed to cats and dogs.

The researchers hoped to discover more about how such unintentional exposure helps us learn distinct categories in this study.

"​We often observe new things out in the real world without a goal of learning about them," says Ohio State University psychologist Vladimir Sloutsky.
"But we found that simply being exposed to them makes an impression in our mind and leads us to be ready to learn about them later."

A total of 438 adult volunteers took part in five distinct studies conducted by the researchers. Researchers developed a unique computer game to introduce participants to strange fanciful animals that were sometimes divided into two groups, akin to cats and dogs.

During the first phase, participants were told to react as rapidly as possible to a monster leaping to either a red or blue panel on the left side of the screen. Unbeknownst to the participants, the side the animals leaped to was always the same as their category, and there were several distinct categories to choose from.

While no one figured out the'secret' categories in the first phase, the results showed that participants who had been exposed to the animals in the first phase were able to learn the categories more quickly.

There was a time of explicit learning later in the studies, during which the made-up categories – 'flurps' and 'jalets' – were exposed to the participants. Explaining how to identify between animals in the two groups was also part of the lesson (different colored tails and hands, for example).

Even though the participants were not given any learning instructions during the initial phase, they were substantially faster in grasping the differences between the creature categories after being shown photographs of 'flurps' and 'jalets.'

"Participants who received early exposure to Category A and B creatures could become familiar with their different distributions of characteristics, such as that creatures with blue tails tended to have brown hands, and creatures with orange tails tended to have green hands," says Ohio State University psychologist Layla Unger.

"Then when the explicit learning came, it was easier to attach a label to those distributions and form the categories."

The initial phase photos in experiment five were accompanied by one of two noises chosen at random, and the participants were required to respond to the sound rather than the picture — in other words, they were not required to pay attention to the creature at all.

Volunteers who saw 'flurps' and 'jalets' during the first phase with noises performed better in the learning phase, implying that much of what was learned was done subconsciously. To begin learning, simple exposure was sufficient.

"The exposure to the creatures left participants with some latent knowledge, but they weren't ready to tell the difference between the two categories. They had not learned yet, but they were ready to learn," Unger says.

This form of latent learning has gotten a lot of attention recently, and future research might go beyond the present adult studies to look at the process in newborns and children.

"It has been very difficult to diagnose when latent learning is occurring," Sloutsky explains.
"But this research was able to differentiate between latent learning and what people learn during explicit teaching."