Fwd: Study shows brain can learn without really trying

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Tue Oct 30 2001 - 22:29:21 GMT

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    Subject: Fwd: Study shows brain can learn without really trying
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    I'm not sure, at all, that this study makes any claim for 'subliminal'
    learning, (although I'm sure that fraud's proponents will bark that it
    does), in fact, it appears only to ascertain to pattern-recognition and
    other unconscious perceptions. My favorite question for people to show
    this sort of thing, is, when looking at the moon, to ask them if it's
    getting bigger or smaller- this would seem to me to be the sort of thing
    that only gets picked up 'unconsciously', unless one were semi-serious
    about their moon-gazing, which most people aren't. Although, the
    mentioned 'next song on the album' trick is a good one.

    - Wade


    Study shows brain can learn without really trying

    By Patricia Wen, Globe Staff, 10/30/2001

    ithout_really_tryingP. shtml

    Coach potatoes who aspire to intellectual greatness may have some hope: A
    new study shows a person can focus on one thing - say TV - and soak up
    other information on the side without even trying.

    Whether they can pick up something as complex as Shakespeare or a foreign
    language awaits more study. Still, a Boston University researcher this
    week found that people absorb information in their peripheral vision -
    they can even acquire a low-level skill - while focused entirely on
    something else.

    The findings, which appeared in Nature magazine this week, go further
    than previous research in showing just what the human brain can learn
    without consciously trying.

    ''Even when our mind is not paying attention to extraneous information,
    it ends up processing it,'' said Takeo Watanabe, a researcher in the
    Boston University psychology department.

    In his study, 72 young adults, ranging in age from 19 to 25, were asked
    to look at a computer and identify letters that flashed rapidly across
    the screen. Next to half of the participants sat a separate screen,
    displaying gray dots, much like the visual snow on a television set with
    bad reception. Unbeknownst to the subjects, 5 percent of the gray dots
    were moving in the same direction, a pattern that was barely discernable
    to the naked eye.

    Later, both groups were tested on their ability to look at a television
    screen and detect any pattern of moving dots. The group that only had one
    screen within their field of vision could not detect moving dots, even
    when 10 percent marched in the same direction. But everyone in the group
    who had been exposed to the peripheral screen of moving dots had an
    enhanced ability to detect a pattern.

    ''It means they learned something without being conscious of it,''
    Watanabe said.

    Only further study will show, however, if the subliminal learning came at
    a cost to the main task, answering questions such as: If a teenager
    writes a book report while peripherally seeing French vocabulary words,
    will the quality of his or her paper suffer?

    Researchers in the field say that's a key question, one that will help
    ordinary people figure out whether they should seek out - or avoid - a
    split-screen learning environment.

    ''Is there a cost to this?'' said Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor
    at Harvard University. ''You'd think there would be, but it's hard to
    guess this one.''

    Past work in the area of subliminal or implicit learning focused on what
    the brain picked up without trying to, though the extraneous information
    usually related to the main task.

    Examples of this include a driver knowing just what song will play next
    on the car's tape player, not because of a conscious attempt to learn the
    order but because they just heard the sequence so many times, said Marcel
    Just, codirector of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie
    Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa.

    Watanabe said he hopes to learn more about just what kinds of skills can
    be picked up in a subliminal way, and if they can enter the brain through
    other channels, such as listening.

    Regardless of the future role of implicit learning, Watanabe said this
    kind of learning has long helped the human species survive. He said, for
    instance, that someone could walk down a street while talking to a friend
    and implicitly pick up that cars are driving in a particular direction.
    While paying attention only to the conversation, part of the brain is
    ''sensitized'' to the direction of the cars to avoid an accident, he said.

    ''Without that knowledge, we'd be in much more danger,'' he said.

    Patricia Wen can be reached by

    e-mail at wen@globe.com.

    This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 10/30/2001.
    Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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