Timed Exposure Can Be As Good As Practice

We know that delib­er­ate prac­tice is an import­ant part of learn­ing (and mas­ter­ing) new skills–but what role, if any, does mere pass­ive expos­ure play? Can rel­ev­ant back­ground stim­u­la­tion help us to reduce the amount of effort and prac­tice neces­sary to mas­ter a skill?

To answer these ques­tions Jonah Lehr­er con­tac­ted the authors of a recent paper study­ing exactly this and found that pass­ive expos­ure can be as effect­ive as practice, drastic­ally cut­ting the effort required to learn.

These exper­i­ment­s […] demon­strated that listen­ing to rel­ev­ant back­ground stim­u­la­tion could be just as effect­ive as slav­ing away at the task itself, at least when the sub­jects had prac­ticed first. In fact, the sci­ent­ists found that we don’t even have to be pay­ing con­scious atten­tion to the stim­uli – sub­jects still benefited from the stim­u­la­tion even when dis­trac­ted by an entirely unre­lated task. […]

Yes you do have to do the task, just not for the whole time. The main res­ult is that if you prac­tice for 20 minutes, and then you are pass­ively exposed to stim­uli for 20 minutes, you learn as if you have been prac­ti­cing for 40 minutes. You can cut the effort in half, and still yield the same bene­fit. […]

On a prac­tic­al level, the present res­ults sug­gest a means by which per­cep­tu­al train­ing regi­mens might be made markedly more effi­cient and less effort­ful. The cur­rent data indic­ate that it may be pos­sible to reduce the effort required by par­ti­cipants by at least half, with no dele­ter­i­ous effect, simply by com­bin­ing peri­ods of task per­form­ance with peri­ods of addi­tion­al stim­u­lus expos­ure.

Along with the obvi­ous caveats (the study looked only at aud­it­ory dis­crim­in­a­tion tasks), the pub­lished art­icle offers some prac­tic­al cla­ri­fic­a­tions:

Learn­ing was enhanced regard­less of wheth­er the peri­ods of addi­tion­al stim­u­la­tion were inter­leaved with or provided exclus­ively before or after tar­get-task per­form­ance, and even though that stim­u­la­tion occurred dur­ing the per­form­ance of an irrel­ev­ant (aud­it­ory or writ­ten) task. The addi­tion­al expos­ures were only bene­fi­cial when they shared the same fre­quency with, though they did not need to be identic­al to, those used dur­ing tar­get-task per­form­ance. Their effect­ive­ness also was dimin­ished when they were presen­ted 15 min after prac­tice on the tar­get task and was elim­in­ated when that sep­ar­a­tion was increased to 4 h.

One thought on “Timed Exposure Can Be As Good As Practice

  1. Justin Wehr

    I have been strug­gling to fig­ure out what this means since Jonah pos­ted this. I don’t know (of course), and I anxiously await fur­ther research, but here is the cur­rent hypo­thes­is I am oper­at­ing with:

    I think this is a lot like the idea that you become a bet­ter writer by read­ing. You don’t have to be ana­lyz­ing the writ­ing while you’re read­ing because just con­sum­ing good writ­ing helps you to devel­op the uncon­scious under­stand­ing of what good writ­ing is.

    But I think you have to be uncon­sciously attend­ing to the stim­u­lus in the right way. I am a rac­quet­ball play­er, and I don’t think I could become bet­ter by sit­ting around listen­ing to it. But I do believe I could get bet­ter by sit­ting around watch­ing it, even if I am not con­sciously attend­ing to strategy and mech­an­ics. Per­haps that’s an obvi­ous point.

    How I sus­pect some people might mis­in­ter­pret this is that they can learn phys­ics by play­ing phys­ics lec­tures in the back­ground. Obvi­ously, that’s not going to work – this does not apply to know­ledge; only to skills.

    P.S. – Excel­lent blog!

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