Subliminal Learning and Information Overload

Many people think learning requires intense study and focus. But a study in today's journal Nature seems to show that's not true.

"You don't have to pay attention to something to learn it," lead researcher Takeo Watanabe, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston University, says the study shows. "In fact, you don't even have to perceive it."

For the study, subjects were asked to look at a series of letters on a screen. In the background were dots that looked like static on a television. Most dots moved randomly, but a small number moved in the same direction.

Researchers found that subjects subconsciously exposed to the moving dots were more likely to identify the direction of motion of those dots in the static during a later test phase. The subjects weren't even aware that any specific motion was taking place.

Evolutionary Benefit

"There are two possible strategies for us to use to learn from the outside world," Watanabe says.

One strategy is to pay attention to information that is important. However, that requires that you are aware of what is considered important.

The second strategy involves subliminal learning, or learning that falls below the threshold of consciousness. Someone is unaware of what is important to focus on, but frequent exposure to relevant stimuli will increase its importance.

"The more important information is, the more frequently it should be shown," says Watanabe. "Our brains will be tuned to frequently presented information."

Experts say this strategy was an important requirement for early humans to learn to be able to adapt to a changing environment, and react if the landscape and environment shifted. Such a distinction could mean the difference between life and death.

Information Overload

It may be possible for subliminal learning to make some aspects of education easier. Yet, in today's age of technology this ability to learn from repeated exposure may actually serve a purpose that's not geared to survival or learning. Repetition is one of the key tactics used by advertisers, for example, to get people to remember the names of products.

Watanabe and his colleagues feel that repetition of such information may make the second strategy for learning from the environment less important. What was once an effective learning strategy may now make people less able to eliminate unwanted influences.

"If information doesn't have much relevance, it doesn't last long in your memory system," says Stuart Fischoff, professor of media psychology at Cal State Los Angeles. "But if that information is repeated, it will stick better. You will remember a commercial that you see repeatedly even if you hate it."