Subliminal Learning

From: J. R. Molloy (
Date: Thu Oct 25 2001 - 10:47:04 MDT

Subliminal learning works, says study

But it will not mean the end of classrooms
Some tasks can be learned without even paying attention, a new study says.
A team of scientists led by Takeo Watanabe of Boston University, US, got
volunteers to concentrate on one task while surreptitiously training them for

They performed better than untrained colleagues despite not being aware of the

The team writes in the journal Nature that its findings have important
implications for understanding how the brain adjusts to the environment.

Detecting the dots
The researchers got the volunteers to name letters appearing on a screen.

While they were working, a series of dots were moving, apparently randomly,
around the screen.

In actual fact, one in 20 of them were moving in a particular direction.

When asked later to detect similar dots moving in the same direction, the
volunteers performed better than counterparts who had not had the subliminal

Flexible brains
The findings do not spell the end for paying attention in class:

"Although the present finding does not deny the important role of attention in
perceptual learning and in motion, it indicates that the adult brain has the
flexibility to adapt to certain features of the environment as a result of
mere exposure," the team writes.

The scientists speculate that subliminal learning may have helped evolving
humans pick up on features of their environment more efficiently.


Subliminal sights educate brain Paying attention isn't the only way to learn.

Today's busy world could overwhealm our ever-learning brains. You must pay attention to learn, teachers say. Not necessarily, US psychologists now argue: sights we are unaware of can have a lasting impact on our brains.

Subliminal training can improve our ability to see moving dots, Takeo Watanabe and his co-workers at Boston University, Massachusetts, have found. "Without noticing, we are unconsciously learning," Watanabe says. Repeated exposure to objects we are oblivious to "could have a tremendous effect on our brains", he says.

The findings show that for basic visual processes "the brain is never resting", says Robert Stickgold, who studies consciousness at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Psychologists must now ask whether we can learn more complex tasks without paying attention, says Stickgold. Although for students looking to skip school he cautions that "No one's going to learn a foreign language without going to lessons."

Live and learn We are learning automatically as we walk around, explains Ken Nakayama, who studies vision at Harvard. "Patterns pass us all the time," he says, like cars and people on the street. Subconscious learning may be an efficient way to absorb these sideline features without trying. "You can't pay attention to everything," he says.

"The less the world we're living in is like the one we evolved in, the more the mechanism is inappropriate" --Robert Stickgold, Harvard University

Such a learning strategy may have evolved to help us incorporate recurrent, and therefore important, information about our environment into our memory, thinks Watanabe. Animal movements are a good example.

The results also suggest we cannot screen out irrelevant, unwanted information. This is worrying, given that today we are bombarded with moving images from TVs, neon signs and even mobile phone displays. "The less the world we're living in is like the one we evolved in, the more the mechanism is inappropriate," says Stickgold.

Join the dots Watanabe's team asked subjects to look at letters on a screen. Surrounding the letters were dots moving randomly, like the background fuzz after TV programmes have ended for the night. The participants did not realise that 5% of the dots were moving consistently in one direction.

After 25 days of subliminal training, people were tested on their ability to see a detectable level (10%) of dots moving in one direction. They were 20% better than normal at seeing the movement orientation they had previously been exposed to1.

Certain features of an object, such as movement or colour, make nerve cells in the brain fire. Subliminal training may fine-tune these cells, making them especially sensitive to a particular direction of motion, the team thinks.

References Watanabe, T., Nanez, J.E. & Sasaki, Y. Perceptual learning without perception. Nature, 413, 844 - 848, (2001).

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Useless hypotheses, etc.: consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia, analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, Cyc, Eliza, cryonics, individual uniqueness, ego, human values, scientific relinquishment

We move into a better future in proportion as science displaces superstition.

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