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Unconscious Learning: In the Eye of the Beholder?

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Don't pay attention, folks, because a new study finds you just may learn something.

In an experiment described in the March 12 issue of Neuron, people were asked to stare at a central spot on a screen while a drop of water periodically dropped in their mouths through a tube -- a reward for the participants who weren't allowed to eat or drink for five hours before the session. Imperceptible to the test subjects was a visual stimulus, hidden in the rich contour patterns being flashed onscreen, that appeared at the same time they received the liquid reward.

By pairing the reward with the hidden stimulus, the participants subconsciously still learned what being shown below the screen's surface even though they weren't aware of what was going on, the researchers said.

"Our findings support the suggestion that visual skill learning is generally an unconscious process and that goal-directed factors, such as directed attention, serve mostly to bias how learning takes place rather than actually gating the learning process," study author Aaron Seitz, of the department of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, said in a news release issued by the journal's publisher.

Seitz and colleagues Dongho Kim and Takeo Watanabe from Boston University wrote that future studies still needed to be done on their hypothesis.

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