Can the brain learn while it's distracted?

Yes, but the type of learning matters – an explanation of our research.

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Our article, "Surprise responses in the human brain demonstrate statistical learning under high concurrent cognitive demand", was published in the journal npj Science of Learning recently. The Nature Research team had a few questions for us about our article, which we have answered below.

What was the main aim of your research and why did you decide to investigate this?

We know that people are good at learning rules about things in their environment. Here we asked whether such learning would persist if people were distracted with a completely different task.

What were the key findings from the study?

By recording people’s electric brain activity we found that indeed people can still learn despite being engaged on an unrelated demanding task.

What’s the bigger picture of your research findings?

There’s a lot we can learn about the world without taking notice. Perhaps a lot more than we think can be learnt unconsciously.

What next? What further research is needed in this area?

It is important to understand what can and cannot be learnt unconsciously and also which brain pathways are engaged during such processes.


For more information about the research, read a general summary of the main findings of the article.

Marta Garrido

Senior Research Fellow and Group Leader of the Computational Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, The University of Queensland

Dr Marta Garrido leads the Computational Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Queensland and is Chief Investigator in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Integrative Brain Function. Dr Garrido received her PhD in 2008 from University College London under the supervision of Professor Karl Friston. She then completed postdocs at University California Los Angeles with Professor Russ Poldrack, and back at University College London with Professor Ray Dolan. In 2013 she moved to the University of Queensland on a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award and established her independent laboratory in 2016 at the Queensland Brain Institute and the Centre for Advanced Imaging.