Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Perceptual learning can develop over extended periods, with slow, at times sleep-dependent, improvement seen several days after training. As a result, performance can become more automatic, that is, less dependent on voluntary attention. This study investigates whether the brain correlates of this enhancement of automaticity are sleep-dependent. Event-related potentials produced in response to complex auditory stimuli were recorded while subjects' attention was focused elsewhere. We report here that following training on an auditory discrimination task, performance continued to improve, without significant further training, for 72 hr. At the same time, several event-related potential components became evident 48–72 hr after training. Posttraining sleep deprivation prevented neither the continued performance improvement nor the slow development of cortical dynamics related to an enhanced familiarity with the task. However, those brain responses associated with the automatic shift of attention to unexpected stimuli failed to develop. Thus, in this auditory learning paradigm, posttraining sleep appears to reduce the voluntary attentional effort required for successful perceptual discrimination by facilitating the intrusion of a potentially meaningful stimulus into one's focus of attention for further evaluation.