Tracking the implicit acquisition of nonadjacent transitional probabilities by ERPs

Mem Cognit. 2019 Nov;47(8):1546-1566. doi: 10.3758/s13421-019-00949-x.


The implicit acquisition of complex probabilistic regularities has been found to be crucial in numerous automatized cognitive abilities, including language processing and associative learning. However, it has not been completely elucidated how the implicit extraction of second-order nonadjacent transitional probabilities is reflected by neurophysiological processes. Therefore, this study investigated the sensitivity of event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to these probabilistic regularities embedded in a sequence of visual stimuli without providing explicit information on the structure of the stimulus stream. Healthy young adults (N = 32) performed a four-choice RT task that included a sequential regularity between nonadjacent trials yielding a complex transitional probability structure. ERPs were measured relative to both stimulus and response onset. RTs indicated the rapid acquisition of the sequential regularity and the transitional probabilities. The acquisition process was also tracked by the stimulus-locked and response-locked P3 component: The P3 peak was larger for the sequence than for the random stimuli, while the late P3 was larger for less probable than for more probable short-range relations among the random stimuli. According to the RT and P3 effects, sensitivity to the sequential regularity is assumed to be supported by the initial sensitivity to the transitional probabilities. These results suggest that stimulus-response contingencies on the probabilistic regularities of the ongoing stimulus context are implicitly mapped and constantly revised. Overall, this study (1) highlights the role of predictive processes during implicit memory formation, and (2) delineates a potential to gain further insight into the dynamics of implicit acquisition processes.

Keywords: Implicit learning; Nonadjacent dependencies; P3; Predictive processes; Stimulus–response mapping.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Event-Related Potentials, P300 / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Probability Learning*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Serial Learning / physiology*
  • Young Adult