Disruption of Perceptual Learning by a Brief Practice Break

David F. Little*, Yu Xuan Zhang, Beverly A. Wright

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Some forms of associative learning require only a single experience to create a lasting memory [1, 2]. In contrast, perceptual learning often requires extensive practice within a day for performance to improve across days [3, 4]. This suggests that the requisite practice for durable perceptual learning is integrated throughout each day. If the total amount of daily practice is the only important variable, then a practice break within a day should not disrupt across-day improvement. To test this idea, we trained human listeners on an auditory frequency-discrimination task over multiple days and compared the performance of those who engaged in a single continuous practice session each day [4] with those who were given a 30-min break halfway through each practice session. Continuous practice yielded significant perceptual learning [4]. In contrast, practice with a rest break led to no improvement, indicating that the integration process had decayed within 30 min. In a separate experiment, a 30-min practice break also disrupted durable learning on a non-native phonetic classification task. These results suggest that practice trials are integrated up to a learning threshold within a transient memory store before they are sent en masse into a memory that lasts across days. Thus, the oft cited benefits of distributed over massed training [5, 6] may arise from different mechanisms depending on whether the breaks occur before or after a learning threshold has been reached. Trial integration could serve as an early gatekeeper to plasticity, helping to ensure that longer-lasting changes are only made when deemed worthwhile. Little et al. find that a 30-min practice break during perceptual training prevents perceptual learning from lasting across days, suggesting that trials integrate up to a learning threshold within a transient memory store before they are sent en masse into a durable memory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3699-3705.e3
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number23
StatePublished - Dec 4 2017


  • distributed training
  • frequency discrimination
  • massed training
  • memory consolidation
  • non-native consonants
  • perceptual learning
  • speech perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)


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