Smalle et al. make the fascinating observation that inhibition of our adult cognitive control system by non-invasive brain stimulation can unleash some of our infant implicit statistical learning abilities - the learning of novel words embedded in a string of spoken syllables. This suggests that adult language learning is antagonized by higher cognitive mechanisms.
Statistical learning mechanisms enable extraction of patterns in the environment from infancy to adulthood. For example, they enable segmentation of continuous speech streams into novel words. Adults typically become aware of the hidden words even when passively listening to speech streams. It remains poorly understood how cognitive development and brain maturation affect implicit statistical learning (i.e., infant-like learning without awareness). Here, we show that the depletion of the cognitive control system by noninvasive brain stimulation or by demanding cognitive tasks boosts adults’ implicit but not explicit word-segmentation abilities. These findings suggest that the adult cognitive architecture constrains statistical learning mechanisms that are likely to contribute to early language acquisition and opens avenues to enhance language-learning abilities in adults.Abstract
Human learning is supported by multiple neural mechanisms that maturate at different rates and interact in mostly cooperative but also sometimes competitive ways. We tested the hypothesis that mature cognitive mechanisms constrain implicit statistical learning mechanisms that contribute to early language acquisition. Specifically, we tested the prediction that depleting cognitive control mechanisms in adults enhances their implicit, auditory word-segmentation abilities. Young adults were exposed to continuous streams of syllables that repeated into hidden novel words while watching a silent film. Afterward, learning was measured in a forced-choice test that contrasted hidden words with nonwords. The participants also had to indicate whether they explicitly recalled the word or not in order to dissociate explicit versus implicit knowledge. We additionally measured electroencephalography during exposure to measure neural entrainment to the repeating words. Engagement of the cognitive mechanisms was manipulated by using two methods. In experiment 1 (n = 36), inhibitory theta-burst stimulation (TBS) was applied to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or to a control region. In experiment 2 (n = 60), participants performed a dual working-memory task that induced high or low levels of cognitive fatigue. In both experiments, cognitive depletion enhanced word recognition, especially when participants reported low confidence in remembering the words (i.e., when their knowledge was implicit). TBS additionally modulated neural entrainment to the words and syllables. These findings suggest that cognitive depletion improves the acquisition of linguistic knowledge in adults by unlocking implicit statistical learning mechanisms and support the hypothesis that adult language learning is antagonized by higher cognitive mechanisms.