Early behavioural facilitation by temporal expectations in complex visual-motor sequences.
Heideman SG., van Ede F., Nobre AC.
In daily life, temporal expectations may derive from incidental learning of recurring patterns of intervals. We investigated the incidental acquisition and utilisation of combined temporal-ordinal (spatial/effector) structure in complex visual-motor sequences using a modified version of a serial reaction time (SRT) task. In this task, not only the series of targets/responses, but also the series of intervals between subsequent targets was repeated across multiple presentations of the same sequence. Each participant completed three sessions. In the first session, only the repeating sequence was presented. During the second and third session, occasional probe blocks were presented, where a new (unlearned) spatial-temporal sequence was introduced. We first confirm that participants not only got faster over time, but that they were slower and less accurate during probe blocks, indicating that they incidentally learned the sequence structure. Having established a robust behavioural benefit induced by the repeating spatial-temporal sequence, we next addressed our central hypothesis that implicit temporal orienting (evoked by the learned temporal structure) would have the largest influence on performance for targets following short (as opposed to longer) intervals between temporally structured sequence elements, paralleling classical observations in tasks using explicit temporal cues. We found that indeed, reaction time differences between new and repeated sequences were largest for the short interval, compared to the medium and long intervals, and that this was the case, even when comparing late blocks (where the repeated sequence had been incidentally learned), to early blocks (where this sequence was still unfamiliar). We conclude that incidentally acquired temporal expectations that follow a sequential structure can have a robust facilitatory influence on visually-guided behavioural responses and that, like more explicit forms of temporal orienting, this effect is most pronounced for sequence elements that are expected at short inter-element intervals.