Original Article

Psychological Research

, Volume 69, Issue 5, pp 369-382

First online:

Attentional load and implicit sequence learning

  • David R. ShanksAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University College London Email author 
  • , Lee A. RowlandAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University College London
  • , Mandeep S. RangerAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University College London

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A widely employed conceptualization of implicit learning hypothesizes that it makes minimal demands on attentional resources. This conjecture was investigated by comparing learning under single-task and dual-task conditions in the sequential reaction time (SRT) task. Participants learned probabilistic sequences, with dual-task participants additionally having to perform a counting task using stimuli that were targets in the SRT display. Both groups were then tested for sequence knowledge under single-task (Experiments 1 and 2) or dual-task (Experiment 3) conditions. Participants also completed a free generation task (Experiments 2 and 3) under inclusion or exclusion conditions to determine if sequence knowledge was conscious or unconscious in terms of its access to intentional control. The experiments revealed that the secondary task impaired sequence learning and that sequence knowledge was consciously accessible. These findings disconfirm both the notion that implicit learning is able to proceed normally under conditions of divided attention, and that the acquired knowledge is inaccessible to consciousness. A unitary framework for conceptualizing implicit and explicit learning is proposed.