Scientists have uncovered a surprising conflict between critical cognitive abilities

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Scientists have discovered that individuals who are particularly good at learning patterns and sequences struggle with tasks requiring active thinking and decision making. Their new research, published in npj science of learning, found a negative correlation between statistical learning and executive functions, suggesting that as one becomes stronger, the other may diminish slightly. This discovery provides valuable insight into the competitive interactions that underlie our cognitive skills.

The motivation behind the study arose from a desire to deepen our understanding of how different cognitive systems within the brain interact with, and potentially interfere with, each other. At the center of this investigation are two fundamental cognitive processes: implicit statistical learning and executive functions.

Implicit statistical learning is an important cognitive skill that allows individuals to unconsciously detect patterns and regularities in the environment, underpinning abilities in areas ranging from language acquisition to social interaction. Executive functions, on the other hand, are high-level cognitive processes necessary for planning, decision making, error correction, and adapting to new and complex situations, which are managed primarily by the prefrontal cortex.

This research was inspired by the hypothesis of competitive interactions between these systems, known as the “competition hypothesis”, which posits that reliance on one cognitive system can reduce the efficacy or participation of another. Previous studies provided preliminary evidence suggesting such interactions, but they were limited by small sample sizes and narrow assessments of cognitive abilities. The researchers’ goal was to provide clearer insight into how these cognitive processes co-exist or conflict within the brain.

“Our brain is a complex ecosystem. Various neurocognitive processes are constantly interacting with each other. These interactions can be cooperative, but what is very exciting and interesting is that these interactions can also be competitive,” said the study authors. dezso nemeth of the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center at INSERM in France.

“So there is competition between different neurocognitive processes in the brain. This is something I’ve been researching for years. In this paper, we show that statistical learning underlying skill learning and predictive processes is negatively correlated with prefrontal lobe-related functions such as executive functions or control functions.

The researchers conducted two experiments. Study 1 involved 186 young adults in France who participated in a two-day session where they first completed an Alternating Serial Reaction Time (ASRT) task to measure statistical learning. In this task, participants responded to visual stimuli (arrows pointing in one of four directions) by pressing the corresponding button on a response box. Unbeknownst to the participants, these stimuli followed a structured sequence with random elements, allowing researchers to measure how quickly and accurately individuals could learn and predict these patterns without explicit instructions.

The next day, a series of neuropsychological tests evaluated various executive functions, including cognitive flexibility, inhibition, and working memory. Participation criteria included being right-handed, being under 35 years of age, and having minimal musical training, factors that influence cognitive processing.

Similarly, Study 2 replicated the structure of Study 1 but with slight changes to adapt to local resources and contexts and included 157 Hungarian university students. This study used images of the dog’s head and keyboard responses in the ASRT task, and was self-paced, allowing the researchers to test the stability of the learning measure under different procedural conditions. Like Study 1, the second session involved testing executive functions through a comparable set of tasks, slightly adapted for local execution.

In both studies, a consistent negative correlation was observed between statistical learning and most measures of executive functioning. This suggests that individuals who excel at tasks requiring high levels of executive control, such as complex problem-solving and decision making, may find it more challenging to engage in or benefit from implicit learning processes that draw on patterns and Depend on subconscious detection of regularities. in the environment.

“It’s amazing to see this competition against the backdrop of learning skills,” Nemeth said.

The researchers employed factor analysis techniques to delve deeper into the data, which revealed that certain aspects of executive functioning – particularly tasks that measure verbal fluency and complex working memory – were most strongly associated with these negative correlations. Had happened. The researchers hypothesized that this competition may arise because these executive functions require active control and manipulation of information, processes that may interfere with the passive, automatic pattern recognition that characterizes underlying statistical learning.

The findings challenge the traditional view of cognitive abilities as isolated skills, instead highlighting the interactive and potentially competitive nature of different cognitive systems within the brain.

“Humans have many processes and systems of learning and memory,” Nemeth told PsyPost. “So, there is no such thing as a ‘learning’ and ‘memory’ system. Instead, there are learning (i.e. multiple learning processes) and memory systems (multiple memory systems). When I want to learn a completely new thing, a new pattern, or a completely new sequence from an environment I’ve never seen before, I can do it better if my brain has better prefrontal lobe function (executive function). Are less efficient.”

“In other words, if you want to learn a new skill, like playing a new musical instrument, it’s great if the functions associated with the prefrontal network are weak. This is quite counter-intuitive. In many school performances, we see the opposite: if you need to understand a history or biology lesson, it is good and optimal if the prefrontal function is strong.

However, the effect size was modest, indicating that while the relationships are statistically significant, they may not be strong. This suggests that other factors not measured in this study may also play an important role in cognitive performance. Nevertheless, Nemeth said, “the findings are very important for fundamental research.” “They tell us a lot about how our brains work. The question is whether these results can be put into practice.”

“These results are the first in this field,” Nemeth said. “However, it is important to recognize that executive functions (prefrontal function) and statistical learning (prediction processes) are not monolithic constructs; Rather, they involve a variety of executive functions and various aspects of statistical learning.”

“The key investigation concerns which specific executive functions and elements of statistical learning exhibit positive or negative correlations with each other. When do they compete and when do they cooperate? This question extends to the brain level also. My aim is to uncover the brain mechanisms underlying these interactions.

the study, “Evidence for a competitive relationship between executive functions and statistical learning.,” was written by Felipe Pedraza, Bence C. Farkas, Teodora Vaconi, Frederic Hasebart, Romain Felipon, Imola Mihalecz, Karolina Janacek, Royce Anders, Barbara Tillman, Gane Plancher, and Dezso Nemeth.


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