Working memory and implicit pattern learning in anticipatory behaviour

Working memory affects anticipatory behaviour during implicit pattern learning
Published: 30 Sep 2019

We often think of learning as a conscious and effortful process that is inextricably related linked to memory. However, learning can also take place without awareness and explicit instructions. This is known as implicit learning, and it is one of the fundamental cognitive abilities. An interesting question is whether this type of learning is related to memory, and working memory in particular.

In our study we investigated the relation between implicit sequence learning and individual differences in working memory (WM) capacity. Participants performed an oculomotor version of the serial reaction time (SRT) task and three computerized WM tasks. Implicit learning was measured using anticipation measures only, as they represent strong indicators of learning.

Our results demonstrate that anticipatory behavior in the SRT task changes as a function of WM capacity, such that it increases with decreased WM capacity: learners with poorer WM anticipate more. On the other hand, WM capacity did not affect the overall number of correct anticipations in the task. There was, however, a positive relation between WM capacity and the number of consecutive correct anticipations (or chunks), meaning that learners with larger WM capacity are able to predict a larger number of consecutive trials correctly. There was also a negative relation between WM capacity and the overall number of errors, showing that learners with larger WM capacity also make fewer errors overall. Taken together these findings suggest the existence of different learning strategies during implicit sequence learning.

The results of the current study are theoretically important, because they demonstrate that individual differences in WM capacity could account for differences in learning processes, and ultimately change individuals’ anticipatory behavior, even when learning is implicit, without intention and awareness.