Visuospatial sequence learning without seeing.
Rosenthal CR., Kennard C., Soto D.
BACKGROUND: The ability to detect and integrate associations between unrelated items that are close in space and time is a key feature of human learning and memory. Learning sequential associations between non-adjacent visual stimuli (higher-order visuospatial dependencies) can occur either with or without awareness (explicit vs. implicit learning) of the products of learning. Existing behavioural and neurocognitive studies of explicit and implicit sequence learning, however, are based on conscious access to the sequence of target locations and, typically, on conditions where the locations for orienting, or motor, responses coincide with the locations of the target sequence. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Dichoptic stimuli were presented on a novel sequence learning task using a mirror stereoscope to mask the eye-of-origin of visual input from conscious awareness. We demonstrate that conscious access to the sequence of target locations and responses that coincide with structure of the target sequence are dispensable features when learning higher-order visuospatial associations. Sequence knowledge was expressed in the ability of participants to identify the trained higher-order visuospatial sequence on a recognition test, even though the trained and untrained recognition sequences were identical when viewed at a conscious binocular level, and differed only at the level of the masked sequential associations. CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: These results demonstrate that unconscious processing can support perceptual learning of higher-order sequential associations through interocular integration of retinotopic-based codes stemming from monocular eye-of-origin information. Furthermore, unlike other forms of perceptual associative learning, visuospatial attention did not need to be directed to the locations of the target sequence. More generally, the results pose a challenge to neural models of learning to account for a previously unknown capacity of the human visual system to support the detection, learning and recognition of higher-order sequential associations under conditions where observers are unable to see the target sequence or perform responses that coincide with structure of the target sequence.