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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Statistical learning: a powerful mechanism that operates by mere exposure

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How do infants learn so rapidly and with little apparent effort? In 1996, Saffran, Aslin, and Newport reported that 8‐month‐old human infants could learn the underlying temporal structure of a stream of speech syllables after only 2 min of passive listening. This demonstration of what was called statistical learning, involving no instruction, reinforcement, or feedback, led to dozens of confirmations of this powerful mechanism of implicit learning in a variety of modalities, domains, and species. These findings reveal that infants are not nearly as dependent on explicit forms of instruction as we might have assumed from studies of learning in which children or adults are taught facts such as math or problem solving skills. Instead, at least in some domains, infants soak up the information around them by mere exposure. Learning and development in these domains thus appear to occur automatically and with little active involvement by an instructor (parent or teacher). The details of this statistical learning mechanism are discussed, including how exposure to specific types of information can, under some circumstances, generalize to never‐before‐observed information, thereby enabling transfer of learning. WIREs Cogn Sci 2017, 8:e1373. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1373

Illustration of the stimuli used by Saffran et al. to study statistical learning in 8‐month‐old infants. (a) The inventory of syllables and tri‐syllabic words. (b) The statistical structure of the words and part‐words. TP, transitional probability. See Supporting information for link to sound file.
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The design of the Marcus et al. experiment on rule learning in which 9‐month‐olds were presented with a large inventory of syllables with a uniform ABB pattern. The test items presented after familiarization were composed of entirely novel syllables that either conformed to the familiar ABB pattern or exhibited a novel AAB pattern. The Gerken experiment used two subsets of the overall inventory of stimuli from Marcus et al. Blue highlight = broad generalization. Red highlight = narrow generalization.
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The stimuli and design of the spatial version of the statistical learning task from Fiser and Aslin with adults. (a) The inventory of shapes and a sample of their arrangement in 3 × 3 grids. The shape‐pairs used during the post‐test showing their joint and conditional probabilities. The stimuli and design of the analogous task used with 9‐month‐old infants by Fiser and Aslin. (b) The inventory of shapes and sample scenes presented during familiarization. The shape pairs used during the post‐test and their underlying statistics.
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