BACKGROUND: We investigated how temporal context affects the learning of arbitrary visuo-motor associations. Human observers viewed highly distinguishable, fractal objects and learned to choose for each object the one motor response (of four) that was rewarded. Some objects were consistently preceded by specific other objects, while other objects lacked this task-irrelevant but predictive context. RESULTS: The results of five experiments showed that predictive context consistently and significantly accelerated associative learning. A simple model of reinforcement learning, in which three successive objects informed response selection, reproduced our behavioral results. CONCLUSIONS: Our results imply that not just the representation of a current event, but also the representations of past events, are reinforced during conditional associative learning. In addition, these findings are broadly consistent with the prediction of attractor network models of associative learning and their prophecy of a persistent representation of past objects.
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