Humans live in a volatile environment, subject to changes occurring at different timescales. The ability to adjust internal predictions accordingly is critical for perception and action. We studied this ability with two EEG experiments in which participants were presented with sequences of four Gabor patches, simulating a rotation, and instructed to respond to the last stimulus (target) to indicate whether or not it continued the direction of the first three stimuli. Each experiment included a short-term learning phase in which the probabilities of these two options were very different (p = .2 vs. p = .8, Rules A and B, respectively), followed by a neutral test phase in which both probabilities were equal. In addition, in one of the experiments, prior to the short-term phase, participants performed a much longer long-term learning phase where the relative probabilities of the rules predicting targets were opposite to those of the short-term phase. Analyses of the RTs and P3 amplitudes showed that, in the neutral test phase, participants initially predicted targets according to the probabilities learned in the short-term phase. However, whereas participants not pre-exposed to the long-term learning phase gradually adjusted their predictions to the neutral probabilities, for those who performed the long-term phase, the short-term associations were spontaneously replaced by those learned in that phase. This indicates that the long-term associations remained intact whereas the short-term associations were learned, transiently used, and abandoned when the context changed. The spontaneous recovery suggests independent storage and control of long-term and short-term associations.
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