Unlocking adults’ implicit statistical learning by cognitive depletion

Eleonore H.M. Smalle*, Tatsuya Daikoku, Arnaud Szmalec, Wouter Duyck, Riikka Mott Onen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)
44 Downloads (Pure)


Human learning is supported by multiple neural mechanisms that maturate at different rates and interact in mostly cooperative but also sometimes competitive ways. We tested the hypothesis that mature cognitive mechanisms constrain implicit statistical learning mechanisms that contribute to early language acquisition. Specifically, we tested the prediction that depleting cognitive control mechanisms in adults enhances their implicit, auditory word-segmentation abilities. Young adults were exposed to continuous streams of syllables that repeated into hidden novel words while watching a silent film. Afterward, learning was measured in a forced-choice test that contrasted hidden words with nonwords. The participants also had to indicate whether they explicitly recalled the word or not in order to dissociate explicit versus implicit knowledge. We additionally measured electroencephalography during exposure to measure neural entrainment to the repeating words. Engagement of the cognitive mechanisms was manipulated by using two methods. In experiment 1 (n = 36), inhibitory theta-burst stimulation (TBS) was applied to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or to a control region. In experiment 2 (n = 60), participants performed a dual working-memory task that induced high or low levels of cognitive fatigue. In both experiments, cognitive depletion enhanced word recognition, especially when participants reported low confidence in remembering the words (i.e., when their knowledge was implicit). TBS additionally modulated neural entrainment to the words and syllables. These findings suggest that cognitive depletion improves the acquisition of linguistic knowledge in adults by unlocking implicit statistical learning mechanisms and support the hypothesis that adult language learning is antagonized by higher cognitive mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2026011119
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cognition/physiology
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Language Development
  • Learning/physiology
  • Linguistics
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term/physiology
  • Mental Recall
  • Prefrontal Cortex/growth & development
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
  • Young Adult


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