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Seb's study: Can you learn an alien language?

When immersed in a new environment (e.g. surrounded by speakers of an unknown language) we are challenged to make sense of an initially incomprehensible stream of incoming sensory information.

At first, it seems like a befuddling cacophony; and yet, quite rapidly, the brain is able to find meaningful structure in the incoming signals, helping us to predict and prepare ourselves for future actions. Understanding how humans achieve this skill is challenged by individual variability. Despite the general consensus that ‘practice makes perfect’, there is striking variability among individuals in the extent to which they take advantage of past experience. Further, individuals can differ markedly in the strategies they use to extract structure and acquire new skills (e.g. learn a new language), yet we have little idea why.alienlanguage

Our study aims to understand what strategies individuals of different ages (from adolescence to older age) adopt in their learning and why. To address this, we developed an online game during which individuals learn to communicate with aliens in order to gain the fuel they need to explore galaxies.  The aliens speak in sequences of unfamiliar symbols presented in a structured order. When the sequences stop the player has to respond in the same language by guessing which symbol would be the correct one to follow. The players adopt different strategies to learn the probabilities with which given combinations of symbols appear.

In addition to the game we ask individuals to complete: a) a survey that gives us information about the player’s demographics and personality, b) cognitive tests that allow us to assess their ability for memory and cognitive flexibility as well as risk-taking behaviour. Our goal is to understand what cognitive and other traits are predictive of learning strategy in different age groups.

You can do all the tests (game, survey, cognitive tests) online any time and individuals who complete the whole study are eligible for up to £15 in Amazon vouchers. To sign up, email .

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