The ability to detect patterns and organize individual events into complex sequences is a fundamental cognitive skill that is often learned implicitly. The serial response time (SRT) task has been widely used to investigate implicit sequence learning, but it remains unclear whether people learn a perceptual or motor sequence in this task. This study reports three experiments that build on previous research by Goschke and colleagues using an auditory SRT task in which the stimulus-to-response mapping changes on every trial to eliminate spatio-motor sequencing. The current study extends earlier work in three ways. First, healthy young and older adults were tested rather than the neuropsychological patients used in previous research. Second, sequences of different structural complexity were investigated including first- and second-order repeating sequences as well as higher-order probabilistic sequences. Third, the potential role of explicit knowledge was examined using three separate tests of declarative knowledge. Results indicate that young and old adults are able to learn purely perceptual auditory sequences, but that explicit knowledge contributes to learning of repeating sequences by young adults.
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