Learning and memory Journal Article Review

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A critical review of Shanks, D. R., & St. John, M. F. (1994). Characteristics of dissociable human learning systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 17, 367–447.

        Shanks & St. John (1994) claimed that the proposal of dissociable human learning systems – explicit and implicit learning systems is based on the following – explicit learning takes place with concurrent awareness and involves encoding of instances or fragments; implicit learning takes place without concurrent awareness and involves unconscious rule learning. In their review article, they concluded that generally implicit learning was unsupported with consideration to instrumental learning tasks, Pavlovian and evaluative conditioning models, sequential reaction time tasks and so on. In this review, we would concentrate on the domains of sequential reaction time tasks and Pavlovian and evaluative conditioning models, with close reference to whether relevant empirical evidence would support the view of implicit learning or not.

As implicit learning is classified as unaware, Shanks & St. John (1994) proposed two criteria where tests of awareness for implicit learning should meet. The first one was named the ‘information criterion’ - before concluding that subjects are unaware of the learned information that  influences their behavior, the experimenter must be able to establish that the information he or she is looking for in the awareness test is indeed the information responsible for changes in performance. They also devised a second criterion - the sensitivity criterion, which stated that unaware learning must achieve an adequate level of sensitivity. In detail, in order to show that two dependent variables say tests of conscious knowledge and task performance relate to dissociable underlying systems, we must be able to show that our test of awareness is sensitive to all of the relevant conscious knowledge. Unless this criterion is met, the fact that subjects are able to transmit more information in their task performance than in a test of awareness may simply be due to the greater sensitivity of the performance test to whatever conscious information the subject has encoded. It was based on these criteria that Shanks & St. John (1994) concluded that there was not any reliable evidence available to support implicit learning.

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Moreover, in the domain of conditioning, Shanks & St. John (1994) argued that there was no formal establishment of dissociation between learning of reinforcement contingence and presence of awareness. They outlined an experiment by Lovibond (1992), where galvanic skin responses (GSR) of participants were stronger to A than to B. For tests measuring the awareness of subjects, Shanks & St. John (1994) suggested that a verbal report test was inadequate because it involved a different retrieval context compared with performance test, therefore they were uncertain whether the amount of the conscious information picked up for both tests matched or ...

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