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The best time to acquire new skills: age-related differences in implicit sequence learning across the human lifespan


  • The authors contributed equally to this work. The authors report no conflict of interest and have no financial disclosure.

Dezso Nemeth, Institute of Psychology, University of Szeged, Egyetem u. 2, 6722, Szeged, Hungary; e-mail:


Implicit skill learning underlies obtaining not only motor, but also cognitive and social skills through the life of an individual. Yet, the ontogenetic changes in humans’ implicit learning abilities have not yet been characterized, and, thus, their role in acquiring new knowledge efficiently during development is unknown. We investigated such learning across the lifespan, between 4 and 85 years of age with an implicit probabilistic sequence learning task, and we found that the difference in implicitly learning high- vs. low-probability events – measured by raw reaction time (RT) – exhibited a rapid decrement around age of 12. Accuracy and z-transformed data showed partially different developmental curves, suggesting a re-evaluation of analysis methods in developmental research. The decrement in raw RT differences supports an extension of the traditional two-stage lifespan skill acquisition model: in addition to a decline above the age 60 reported in earlier studies, sensitivity to raw probabilities and, therefore, acquiring new skills is significantly more effective until early adolescence than later in life. These results suggest that due to developmental changes in early adolescence, implicit skill learning processes undergo a marked shift in weighting raw probabilities vs. more complex interpretations of events, which, with appropriate timing, prove to be an optimal strategy for human skill learning.