Psychological Research

, Volume 83, Issue 1, pp 132–146 | Cite as

Can we learn to learn? The influence of procedural working-memory training on rapid instructed-task-learning

  • Maayan PeregEmail author
  • Nitzan Shahar
  • Nachshon Meiran
Original Article


Humans have the unique ability to efficiently execute instructions that were never practiced beforehand. In this Rapid Instructed-Task-Learning, not-yet-executed novel rules are presumably held in procedural working-memory (WM), which is assumed to hold stimulus-to-response bindings. In this study, we employed a computerized-cognitive training protocol targeting procedural WM to test this assumption and to examine whether the ability to rapidly learn novel rules can itself be learned. 175 participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: procedural WM training (involving task-switching and N-back elements, all with novel rules; Shahar and Meiran in PLoS One 10(3):e0119992, 2015), active-control training (adaptive visual-search task), and no-contact control. We examined participants’ rapid instructed-task-learning abilities before and after training, by administrating 55 novel choice tasks, and measuring their performance in the first two trials (where participants had no practice). While all participants showed shorter reaction-times in post vs. pretest, only participants in the procedural WM training group did not demonstrate an increased error rate at posttest. Evidence accumulation modelling suggested that this result stems from a reduction in decision threshold (the amount of evidence that needs to be gathered to reach a decision), which was more pronounced in the control groups; possibly accompanied by an increased drift-rate (the rate of evidence accumulation) only for the training group. Implication are discussed.



This work was supported by a research grant from the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation Grant #2015-186 To Nachshon Meiran, Michael W. Cole, and Todd S. Braver.

Compliance with ethical standards

The study was approved by the departmental ethics committee.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Allon, A., & Luria, R. (2016). Prepdat—an R package for preparing experimental data for statistical analysis. Journal of Open Research Software. Scholar
  2. Anderson, J. R. (1996). ACT: A simple theory of complex cognition. American Psychologist, 51(4), 355–365. Scholar
  3. Barrouillet, P., Corbin, L., Dagry, I., & Camos, V. (2015). An empirical test of the independence between declarative and procedural working memory in Oberauer’s (2009) theory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 22(4), 1035–1040. Scholar
  4. Brown, S. D., & Heathcote, A. (2008). The simplest complete model of choice response time: Linear ballistic accumulation. Cognitive Psychology, 57(3), 153–178. Scholar
  5. Cole, M. W., Bagic, A., Kass, R., & Schneider, W. (2010). Prefrontal dynamics underlying rapid instructed task learning reverse with practice. Journal of Neuroscience, 30(42), 14245–14254. Scholar
  6. Cole, M. W., Braver, T. S., & Meiran, N. (2017). The task novelty paradox: Flexible control of inflexible neural pathways during rapid instructed task learning. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 81, 4–15. Scholar
  7. Cole, M. W., Laurent, P., & Stocco, A. (2013). Rapid instructed task learning: A new window into the human brain’s unique capacity for flexible cognitive control. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 13(1), 1–22. Scholar
  8. De Houwer, J., Hughes, S., & Brass, M. (2017). Toward a unified framework for research on instructions and other messages: An introduction to the special issue on the power of instructions. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 81, 1–3. Scholar
  9. Dickman, S. J., & Meyer, D. E. (1988). Impulsivity and speed-accuracy tradeoffs in information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(2), 274–290. Scholar
  10. Donkin, C., Brown, S., Heathcote, A., & Wagenmakers, E.-J. (2011). Diffusion versus linear ballistic accumulation: different models but the same conclusions about psychological processes? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(1), 61–69. Scholar
  11. Forstmann, B. U., Ratcliff, R., & Wagenmakers, E.-J. (2016). Sequential sampling models in cognitive neuroscience: Advantages, applications, and extensions. Annual Review of Psychology. Scholar
  12. Friedman, N. P., Miyake, A., Corley, R. P., Young, S. E., DeFries, J. C., & Hewitt, J. K. (2006). Not all executive functions are related to intelligence. Psychological Science (0956–7976), 17(2), 172–179. Scholar
  13. Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Perrig, W. J. (2008). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(19), 6829–6833. Scholar
  14. JASP Team. (2017). JASP (Version
  15. Kane, M. J., Conway, A. R. A., Miura, T. K., & Colflesh, G. J. H. (2007). Working memory, attention control, and the n-back task: A question of construct validity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33(3), 615–622. Scholar
  16. Koechlin, E., Basso, G., Pietrini, P., Panzer, S., & Grafman, J. (1999). The role of the anterior prefrontal cortex in human cognition. Nature, 399(6732), 148–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Liefooghe, B., Wenke, D., & De Houwer, J. (2012). Instruction-based task-rule congruency effects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 38(5), 1325–1335. Scholar
  18. Logan, G. D. (1988). Automaticity, resources, and memory: Theoretical controversies and practical implications. Human Factors, 30(5), 583–598. Scholar
  19. Meiran, N., Cole, M. W., & Braver, T. S. (2012). When planning results in loss of control: intention-based reflexivity and working-memory. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Scholar
  20. Meiran, N., Liefooghe, B., & De Houwer, J. (2017). Powerful instructions: Automaticity without practice. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. Scholar
  21. Meiran, N., Pereg, M., Givon, E., Danieli, G., & Shahar, N. (2016). The role of working memory in rapid instructed task learning and intention-based reflexivity: An individual differences examination. Neuropsychologia, 90, 180–189. Scholar
  22. Meiran, N., Pereg, M., Kessler, Y., Cole, M. W., & Braver, T. S. (2015a). The power of instructions: Proactive configuration of stimulus–response translation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 41(3), 768–786. Scholar
  23. Meiran, N., Pereg, M., Kessler, Y., Cole, M. W., & Braver, T. S. (2015b). Reflexive activation of newly instructed stimulus–response rules: Evidence from lateralized readiness potentials in no-go trials. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 15(2), 365–373. Scholar
  24. Melby-Lervåg, M., Redick, T. S., & Hulme, C. (2016). Working memory training does not improve performance on measures of intelligence or other measures of “far transfer”: Evidence from a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 512–534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Neath, A. A., & Cavanaugh, J. E. (2012). The Bayesian information criterion: Background, derivation, and applications. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Computational Statistics, 4(2), 199–203. Scholar
  26. Oberauer, K. (2009). Design for a Working Memory. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 51, 45–100. Scholar
  27. Oberauer, K., Souza, A. S., Druey, M. D., & Gade, M. (2013). Analogous mechanisms of selection and updating in declarative and procedural working memory: Experiments and a computational model. Cognitive Psychology, 66(2), 157–211. Scholar
  28. Ratcliff, R., & Smith, P. L. (2004). A comparison of sequential sampling models for two-choice reaction time. Psychological Review, 111(2), 333–367. Scholar
  29. Ratcliff, R., Smith, P. L., Brown, S. D., & McKoon, G. (2016). Diffusion decision model: Current issues and history. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(4), 260–281. Scholar
  30. Redick, T. S., Shipstead, Z., Harrison, T. L., Hicks, K. L., Fried, D. E., Hambrick, D. Z., … Engle, R. W. (2013). No evidence of intelligence improvement after working memory training: A randomized, placebo-controlled study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(2), 359–379. Scholar
  31. Salminen, T., Strobach, T., & Schubert, T. (2012). On the impacts of working memory training on executive functioning. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Scholar
  32. Schwarz, G. (1978). Estimating the dimension of a model. The Annals of Statistics, 6(2), 461–464. Scholar
  33. Shahar, N., & Meiran, N. (2015). Learning to control actions: Transfer effects following a procedural cognitive control computerized training. PLoS One, 10(3), e0119992. Scholar
  34. Shahar, N., Pereg, M., Teodorescu, A. R., Moran, R., Karmon-Presser, A., & Meiran, N. (2018). Formation of abstract task representations: Exploring dosage and mechanisms of working memory training effects. Cognition, 181, 151–159. Scholar
  35. Shahar, N., Teodorescu, A. R., Usher, M., Pereg, M., & Meiran, N. (2014). Selective influence of working memory load on exceptionally slow reaction times. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(5), 1837–1860. Scholar
  36. Souza, AdaS., Oberauer, K., Gade, M., & Druey, M. D. (2012). Processing of representations in declarative and procedural working memory. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. Scholar
  37. Soveri, A., Antfolk, J., Karlsson, L., Salo, B., & Laine, M. (2017). Working memory training revisited: A multi-level meta-analysis of n-back training studies. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24(4), 1077–1096. Scholar
  38. Verbruggen, F., McLaren, I. P. L., & Chambers, C. D. (2014). Banishing the control homunculi in studies of action control and behavior change. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9, 497–524.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Wilhelm, O., & Oberauer, K. (2006). Why are reasoning ability and working memory capacity related to mental speed? An investigation of stimulus–response compatibility in choice reaction time tasks. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 18(1), 18–50. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychology and Zlotowski Center for NeuroscienceBen-Gurion University of the NegevBeer-ShevaIsrael

Personalised recommendations