Much of our research focuses on studying implicit learning in adults and children. Implicit learning refers to general abilities that all people possess for learning about patterns of information in the environment. This kind of learning is described as implicit because it is thought to occur with very little attention or conscious effort. We are particularly interested in understanding the role implicit learning plays in language acquisition and processing, for both typical and atypical situations.
Multisensory Implicit Learning
(Walk & Conway)

Implicit learning has almost exclusively been regarded as an "abstract" or "amodal" process; that is, it is assumed that the sensory or perceptual characteristics of the stimuli do not matter but only the structural relationship that exist among the stimuli. In contrast, our work has been some of the first to emphasize that implicit learning is heavily constrained by the sense modality used to perceive the information (Conway & Christiansen, 2005, 2006, 2009). For example, the way in which patterns of information are learned through hearing differs compared to seeing. Audition is primarily attuned to learning temporal and serial order patterns, whereas vision is best for spatial learning.

A new project currently underway seeks to understand how information in different perceptual modalities (vision, audition, etc.) is integrated to form a coherent representation of event information. Previous work has focused on studying implicit learning for one sense modality in isolation only. Thus, this work is expected to improve our understanding of how implicit learning is important in everyday real-world situations in which multiple sensory information impinges on us simultaneously.

The Role of Working Memory in Implicit Learning
(Conway, Kellogg, & Hendricks)

Implicit learning is traditionally defined as being distinct from the more consciously controlled forms of learning and memory. Whereas implicit learning is believed to be an automatic and unconscious learning process, working memory on the other hand is used to consciously encode and manipulate information in immediate memory. Few studies have investigated to what extent implicit learning relies on working memory processes. This project currently in progress uses a dual-task paradigm in order to tease apart the role that working memory plays in implicit learning.

Electrophysiological Correlates of Implicit Serial Learning
(Jost, Conway, Purdy, & Hendricks)

In order to fully specify the underlying learning mechanisms of implicit learning, a neuroscientific approach is needed. Toward this end, we have previously used event-related potential (ERP) methodology to investigate the link between implicit learning and language (Christiansen, Conway, & Onnis, 2007). In this work, participants were exposed to structural violations in visual sequential patterns, as well as syntactic violations in English sentences. Similar ERP responses were elicited by both types of violations, a positive-going waveform similar to the well-known P600 component. These data suggest an overlap in brain mechanisms involved in both language processing and non-language processing of complex sequential regularities.

Our lab is equipped with a state-of-the-art electrophysiological brain recording system to perform event-related potential (ERP) analyses. This ERP system is being used in a new line of experiments to explore the neural basis of implicit serial learning.

Implicit Sequence Learning and Language Development in Deaf Children
(Conway, et al.)

We believe that implicit learning is vital for language acquisition and processing because both depend upon the extraction of structured information presented in temporal sequences (Conway & Pisoni, 2008). Our previous work has shown that performance on a visual non-linguistic learning task is significantly correlated with performance on a spoken language perception task (Conway, Karpicke, & Pisoni, 2007). These findings have positioned us ideally to examine the role that implicit learning plays in populations that have a language delay, such as deaf children with cochlear implants. For children with a profound hearing loss, a cochlear implant (CI) can enable successful spoken language development; however, some children with CIs gain very little benefit. Understanding what cognitive factors contribute to language outcomes in this population not only has important clinical implications but also represents a unique opportunity to study brain plasticity and neural reorganization after a period of auditory deprivation.

Funded by a research grant from the NIH, we are currently examining implicit learning abilities in deaf children with CIs with the hypothesis that successful outcome and benefit is partly due to adequate use of these fundamental learning abilities. The initial results indicate that deaf children with CIs show delays on several non-linguistic, domain-general measures including visual implicit learning as well as executive function and organization-integration abilities. Importantly, performance on the implicit learning task is significantly correlated with several speech and language outcome measures. In sum, these findings provide new evidence suggesting that a period of auditory deprivation results in a cascade of effects that do not merely target modality-specific auditory perception and spoken language abilities, but that also result in disturbances to domain-general sequencing functions.

In general, we propose that sound acts as a type of cognitive scaffolding, a supporting structure that enables organisms to learn about sequential relations in the environment (Conway, Pisoni, & Kronenberger, in press). Auditory deprivation thus not only deprives an organism of sound, but of experience with encoding and representing sequential patterns more generally.

Adaptive Training of Implicit Learning in Deaf Children with Cochlear Implants
(Conway, Gremp, et al.)

Given that auditory deprivation may lead to general sequencing disturbances that could impair language acquisition, it becomes important to investigate whether such learning abilities can be improved. In previous work, we have shown that it is possible to improve implicit learning abilities using a novel working memory training task (Bauerschmidt, Conway, & Pisoni, 2008). The current project is an extention of this work, aimed at using a visuospatial working memory training task with children who are deaf or hard of hearing. It is anticipated that improvement on the trained task will result in transfer to other tests of working memory and learning, which in turn offers promising implications for the development of language skills among children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Some of the research in our lab is supported by Award Number R03DC009485 from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. The content is solely the responsibility of the researchers and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders or the National Institutes of Health.

Last modified on August 30, 2010