It’s rare that a computer science lab brings us a scenario worthy of a spy novel, but that’s what happened earlier this month when Hristo Bojinov, a researcher at Stanford University, divulged his latest project. Here’s the setup: Imagine an operative has been entrusted with top-secret computer files. He needs a password to enable him to access the information — but what if he falls into the hands of the enemy, and they force him to reveal the code? Bojinov and his colleagues concocted the perfect solution: a password that the spy could use any time he needed it, but which was not available to his conscious mind. He couldn’t give up the code to his captors even if he wanted to. In effect, the scientists would be hiding the password in the brain of the spy.
As cloak-and-dagger as it sounds, the technique the Stanford scientists have developed takes advantage of a common phenomenon known as implicit learning. This is the absorption of information without conscious intent or awareness, and all of us are doing it all of the time. It’s how a young child can put together a coherent sentence without knowing the rules of English grammar; it’s how a longtime fisherman knows that the weather will be good and the fish will be biting, based on shades of the sea and sky that others wouldn’t notice and he couldn’t explain. Still not persuaded? If you’re reading this at a computer, try reciting the letters that make up the middle row of keys on your keyboard. (No peeking!) Likely you couldn’t reel off “A-S-D-F-G-H-J-K-L” — and yet you’ve implicitly learned the location of those letters (unless you type hunt-and-peck style). Bojinov’s study, which he will present next month at a gathering of computer security experts, showed that volunteers in the lab could be trained to learn a 30-digit password by playing a computer game in which the password was embedded.
Although the rest of us don’t have access to Bojinov’s technology, there are ways to improve our implicit learning. First: give your mind plenty of material to work with. Research suggests that we acquire a complex skill, such as speaking a foreign language, more readily when we’re exposed to many different examples of that skill in action. In a study published earlier this year, for example, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago reported that people learning a new language showed “native-like language processing” on brain scans when they received implicit training (immersion in the speech of a variety of different speakers), but not when they received explicit training (instruction focused on the grammar of the language).
Second, practice. We all know we have to practice a skill to get better at it, but the improvement we’re aware of making is only part of what’s going on. Well past the point when we think we’ve “got it,” continued practice allows our brain and our muscles to become more accurate and efficient in carrying out the task, even using less energy to do so. In an experiment published in the Journal of Neuroscience earlier this year, study subjects who learned to manipulate a robotic arm needed to use progressively less effort to make the same movement, offering evidence that repeated practice allows the nervous system to continue refining the current skill, even as we may be itching to tackle the next one.
And lastly, the easiest way of all to improve implicit learning: sleep. Research has shown that during sleep, the brain identifies meaningful patterns in our memories from the preceding day and “consolidates” them, or makes them stronger and more permanent. In a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2007, for example, researchers asked adult subjects to engage in a training session in which they implicitly learned the rules of a task performed on the computer (researchers knew the subjects were learning the rules because they could complete the task faster, though they couldn’t say why or how). After a night of sleep, the subjects were tested again, and shaved nearly ten more seconds off their reaction time. The “off-line learning process that continues after practice has ended,” the researcher concluded, “Is crucially enhanced by sleep.” Follow these tips, and you’ll get better before you know it.