Simply encountering new objects can prime the mind for learning
The study is one of the first to provide evidence for a phenomenon known as ‘latent learning’.
It may sound like every lazy school student’s dream, but we really are able to acquire new knowledge without actively trying, a study carried out by researchers at Ohio State University has confirmed.
The study is one of only a handful to provide experimental evidence that people can learn about objects they have never encountered before, and aren't even trying to understand, simply by being exposed to them, they say.
To make the discovery, the team designed a series of computer game experiments to test participants’ latent learning abilities.
In the first, they had the participants play a simple game involving colourful imaginary creatures. However, they didn’t tell them that the creatures belonged to one of two categories based on different features such as hand and tail colour.
They then moved the experiment on to an 'explicit learning' phase where the researchers told the participants that the creatures belonged to one of two categories, 'flurps' or 'jalets', and taught them how to identify them.
This group of participants was then compared to a control group who had previously been asked to play a game involving a different set of imaginary creatures.
"We found that learning was substantially faster for those who were exposed to the two categories of creatures earlier on than it was in the control group participants," said lead author and post-doctoral researcher Layla Unger.
"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.
“Then when the explicit learning came, it was easier to attach a label to those distributions and form the categories."
The team then carried out a second experiment to determine the degree to which a fresh set of participants were able to learn how to recognise the difference between flurps and jalets during the early exposure phase.
This time, they were asked to hit a specific key as quickly as possible when creatures placed in the centre of the screen jumped to the left or right. However, they were not told that one type of creature always jumped to the left and the other always jumped to the right.
If they were able to learn this during this initial stage of the experiment, then their reaction times would be expected to speed up as they would be able to identify the type of creature before it jumped.
This wasn’t the case - they still required the follow-up explicit learning phase to accurately identify the creatures. However, they were able to identify the creatures more quickly than the control group, indicating that some latent learning had taken place.
"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," said Unger.
"It has been very difficult to diagnose when latent learning is occurring," added the study’s co author Prof Vladimir Sloutsky.
"But this research was able to differentiate between latent learning and what people learn during explicit teaching."
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.