Neural Bases of Automaticity
Automaticity allows us to perform tasks in a fast, efficient, and effortless manner after sufficient practice. Theories of automaticity propose that across practice processing transitions from being controlled by working memory to being controlled by long-term memory retrieval. Recent event-related potential (ERP) studies have sought to test this prediction, however, these experiments did not use the canonical paradigms used to study automaticity. Specifically, automaticity is typically studied using practice regimes with consistent mapping between targets and distractors and spaced practice with individual targets, features that these previous studies lacked. The aim of the present work was to examine whether the practice-induced shift from working memory to long-term memory inferred from subjects’ ERPs is observed under the conditions in which automaticity is traditionally studied. We found that to be the case in 3 experiments, firmly supporting the predictions of theories. In addition, we found that the temporal distribution of practice (massed vs. spaced) modulates the shape of learning curves. The ERP data revealed that the switch to long-term memory is slower for spaced than massed practice, suggesting that memory systems are used in a strategic manner. This finding provides new constraints for theories of learning and automaticity.