The primary focus of research in the Psychoacoustics Laboratory is on how practice affects auditory perceptual skills. In our most recent work, my co-workers and I have begun to explore the general principles of the acquisition and consolidation of auditory learning. A general model for learning holds that learning occurs over two phases, acquisition and consolidation. The acquisition phase is the actual period of training. The consolidation phase is the period after training ends during which the memories that were formed during acquisition are transformed from a fragile to a more stable state. Through the process of consolidation the learning becomes more immune to disruption, and in many cases the improvements themselves are first revealed. This phase can last for hours to days after training and involves a complex cascade of neural changes that ultimately leads to permanent modifications in neurons in the central nervous system. Thus, it is thought that the hour during which you are taking a tennis lesson is the period during which you are acquiring the experiences necessary to improve your serve, but it is during the hours after that lesson, when you are engaged in other activities including sleep, that those experiences are consolidated in long-term memory, yielding lasting improvements in performance.
We have been addressing these principles in auditory learning by characterizing the circumstances that are necessary for acquisition to occur and by determining the vulnerability of the learning process to intervening events during the acquisition and consolidation phases. We have now established that it is possible to enhance or disrupt both acquisition and consolidation depending on how the training is delivered. For example, we have demonstrated that exposure to an acoustic stimulus can facilitate learning on a perceptual task, but only when that exposure occurs within ~30 minutes of practice on that task (Wright et al., 2010).
We also have begun investigating how these characteristics change with age and are affected by sensory and cognitive disorders. For instance, we have identified a training regimen that is effective for adults, but not for most adolescents (Huyck and Wright, 2011) and are using that regimen to investigate our own previous proposal that perceptual development in individuals with language and reading disorders is delayed in childhood and then halted during adolescence (Wright and Zecker, 2004).
This work is of value because surprising little is known about the kinetics and mechanisms of skill learning in humans. A potential clinical benefit of research in perceptual learning is that more effective training strategies can be developed for those with perceptual disorders and that the an individual’s response to perceptual training may be used as an objective, clinical measure to guide diagnosis and treatment of a cognitive disorder.