Measuring and Filtering Reactive Inhibition is Essential for Assessing Serial Decision Making and Learning

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Learning complex structures from stimuli requires extended exposure and often repeated observation of the same stimuli. Learning induces stimulus-dependent changes in specific performance measures. The same performance measures, however, can also be affected by processes that arise because of extended training (e.g., fatigue) but are otherwise independent from learning. Thus, a thorough assessment of the properties of learning can only be achieved by identifying and accounting for the effects of such processes. Reactive inhibition is a process that modulates behavioral performance measures on a wide range of time scales and often has opposite effects than learning. Here we develop a tool to disentangle the effects of reactive inhibition from learning in the context of an implicit learning task, the alternating serial reaction time (ASRT) task. Our method highlights that the magnitude of the effect of reactive inhibition on measured performance is larger than that of the acquisition of statistical structure from stimuli. We show that the effect of reactive inhibition can be identified not only in population measures but also at the level of performance of individuals, revealing varying degrees of contribution of reactive inhibition. Finally, we demonstrate that a higher proportion of behavioral variance can be explained by learning once the effects of reactive inhibition are eliminated. These results demonstrate that reactive inhibition has a fundamental effect on the behavioral performance that can be identified in individual participants and can be separated from other cognitive processes like learning.

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