Ah to be an Expert

Tim Curran, University of Colorado

It is generally accepted that being an expert improves our perceptual processes and also changes how quickly and successfully we learn and remember objects associated with our expertise. However, until now no systematic study had been performed to investigate just how perceptual expertise facilitates memory. Now PI Tim Curran and Post-doctoral Fellow Grit Herzmann have completed just such an investigation into these learning and memory processes. Using event-related potential (ERP) components that directly tapped into the brain activation that is associated with learning and remembering visual objects, they measured the behavioral performance and ERPs of car experts and car novices while they both learned and recognized pictures of cars.

The study revealed that expertise led to more accurate memory performance for cars and also facilitated the retrieval of information associated with the newly-learned cars. Experts learned new cars and subsequently-remembered cars with less effort than novices, as indexed by lower brain activation. Experts were also more successful at recognizing learned cars during recognition testing accompanied by retrieval of episodic and semantic details, as indicated by a stronger parietal old/new effect taken as a marker of memory retrieval.

Also using a subordinate matching task developed in Isabel Gauthier’s lab at Vanderbilt, the researchers determined the relationship between memory processes and subordinate level recognition. Superior abilities for learning and for recognizing objects of expertise were positively related to better subordinate recognition performance. These results show that perceptual expertise sharpens the ability to discriminate between objects of expertise. This occurs not only on the perceptual level, as seen in the better subordinate matching, but also in memory, where representations are more detailed, distinct, and easier to retrieve.

It is believed that the study, which has given rise to a collaboration between the Curran lab and that of Virginia de Sa at UC San Diego, advances knowledge within the fields of perceptual expertise, recognition memory, and learning processes. Results are being presented at three meetings and submitted to at least one peer-reviewed journal.

Curran Highlight