The influence of attention and reward on the learning of stimulus-response associations

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We can learn new tasks by listening to a teacher, but we can also learn by trial-and-error. Here, we investigate the factors that determine how participants learn new stimulus-response mappings by trial-and-error. Does learning in human observers comply with reinforcement learning theories, which describe how subjects learn from rewards and punishments? If yes, what is the influence of selective attention in the learning process? We developed a novel redundant-relevant learning paradigm to examine the conjoint influence of attention and reward feedback. We found that subjects only learned stimulus-response mappings for attended shapes, even when unattended shapes were equally informative. Reward magnitude also influenced learning, an effect that was stronger for attended than for non-attended shapes and that carried over to a subsequent visual search task. Our results provide insights into how attention and reward jointly determine how we learn. They support the powerful learning rules that capitalize on the conjoint influence of these two factors on neuronal plasticity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number9036
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 10 Aug 2017


  • Journal Article


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