Rewards evoke learning of unconsciously processed visual stimuli in adult humans

Neuron. 2009 Mar 12;61(5):700-7. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2009.01.016.


The study of human learning is complicated by the myriad of processing elements involved in conducting any behavioral task. In the case of visual perceptual learning, there has been significant controversy regarding the task processes that guide the formation of this learning. However, there is a developing consensus that top-down, task-related factors are required for such learning to take place. Here we challenge this idea by use of a novel procedure in which human participants, who were deprived of food and water, passively viewed visual stimuli while receiving occasional drops of water as rewards. Visual orientation stimuli, which were temporally paired with the liquid rewards, were viewed monocularly and rendered imperceptible by continuously flashing contour-rich patterns to the other eye. Results show that visual learning can be formed in human adults through stimulus-reward pairing in the absence of a task and without awareness of the stimulus presentation or reward contingencies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Psychophysics
  • Reward*
  • Unconscious, Psychology*
  • Young Adult