Learning of sequences is obviously an important job the brain has to do (e.g., first put socks on, then shoes – not the other way around), and we might assume learning sequences requires a conscious effort, i.e., that you’re aware of the sequence you’re learning. However, as introduced by Nissen and Bullemer in 1987, experiments based on the serial reaction time (SRT) task show that this is not necessarily the case: if you are directed to press keys in an apparently random order, you’ll unconsciously become faster at keying a fixed key sequence hidden amongst the random key presses. How does prior experience with explicitly learning key press sequences (i.e., playing the piano) affect this unconscious sequence learning? Tomorrow at Sensorimotor Journal Club, Leighton Hinkley will present a paper reporting on a study of this question:

 

Landau, S. M., & D'Esposito, M. (2006). Sequence learning in pianists and nonpianists: An fmri study of motor expertise. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 6(3), 246-259. (link to pdf of article)

 

Previous studies of motor learning have proposed a distinction betweenfast and slow learning, but these mechanisms have rarely been examined simultaneously. We examined the influence of long-term motor expertise (slow learning) while pianists and nonpianists performed alternating epochs of sequenced and random keypresses in response to visual cues (fast learning) during functional neuroimaging. All of the participants demonstrated learning of the sequence as demonstrated by decreasing reaction times (RTs) on sequence trials relative to random trials throughout the session. Pianists also demonstrated faster RTs and superior sequence acquisition in comparison with nonpianists. Within-session decreases in bilateral sensorimotor and parietal activation were observed for both groups. Additionally, there was more extensive activation throughout the session for pianists in comparison with nonpianists across a network of primarily right-lateralized prefrontal, sensorimotor, and parietal regions. These findings provide evidence that different neural systems subserve slow and fast phases of learning.