Latent Learning

A latent (hidden) learning is the process of certain skill formation in situations when its direct usage is not required and the skill itself remains unnecessary. The interest in this kind of learning has appeared mainly due to this happening being contrary to the widespread opinion about the stimuli (support) required for learning.

Learning Process

Imagine that you have found out the facts about a certain illness, for example, pneumonia. You’ve never used this knowledge after, and it seems to be forgotten at all. But then, doctors diagnose pneumonia for someone of your friends. There is a high probability for you to remind yourself of many parts of that forgotten knowledge after getting such a stimulus.

This is what they call the latent learning. You found out things about a phenomenon without any need or motivation to memorize them. But a certain situation required using them, you could do that easily. The trick is that humans can gain certain data on a subconscious level, and then remind himself or herself of it in situations when the information is required. The person often wonders about having such knowledge.

But this does not mean you can study English while sleeping and listening to audiobooks.

Other latent learning examples:

  • A student is bad at math, despite visiting all lectures. When the moment comes and he needs to use the knowledge in practice, he understands that he has gained it all well through the subconscious mind;
  • A worker learns how to complete tasks of a higher level, but does not demonstrate the skills before his boss offers a promotion;
  • A parrot learns how to talk, but does not do that until gets some  food as a reward.
  • A human swims to the inhabited island after the ship crash. Suddenly, he or she understands basic principles of survival in savage lands, despite the fact of watching TV-shows when being a child and pretending to forget about everything till the critical moment.

Edward Tolman’s Experiment

Tolman used to be the only psychologist of his time refusing to accept a theory of “stimulus-response”. He stated support not to be always necessary for learning. Tolman was the one who had introduced the term of a “cognitive map”.

A cognitive map is a type of a mental “playback” that serves to gain, code, keep and decode the info about relative locations and attributes of happenings in their usual or metaphoric environment.

Every person has thousands of cognitive maps they are not even conscious about. To put it simpler: it is like your imagination making a picture of received information when you study something. And later, while you go on learning, this cognitive map is put on new data without causing a cognitive overload. This means, you don’t have to make mental efforts to recall it: it literally appears at a right time and place by itself.

Tolman built a labyrinth to make an experiment. The experiment had to confirm the possibility of the latent learning process. He wanted to prove that a stimulus is not necessary for a person to learn something.

The Procedure

  • The scientist divided lab rats into three groups;
  • Each group was taught to pass through the labyrinth;
  • The first group was given a reward each time after passing the labyrinth;
  • The second group received a reward not at once, but after some time;
  • The third group didn’t receive a reward at all.


The second group getting a delayed reward was the goal of the experiment.

Tolman stopped giving a reward to the second group, so there was no motivation for them to go through the labyrinth anymore. But once the reward was returned, cognitive maps got back into the game, and rats “reminded” themselves of how to pass it.

Experiment Learning

A reasonable question appears: How to prove the latent learning exists? To do that, Tolman blocked the usual route so rats had to look for another path.

He supposed that rats made a mental projection or a cognitive map of a labyrinth during the first half of the experiment, and demonstrated this knowledge as soon as they were rewarded.

Rats could find the shortest way, reach the other side of a labyrinth and get their reward. But to do that, they studied the environment even without a stimulus.

Let’s discuss the example with a human.

For instance, you come home from the office, and pass the same route every day. You memorize names and locations of various cafes and shops even without conscious efforts made from your side.

This information may remain unnecessary for many years. But once, when you need to get to a certain cafe “X” on the “Y” street, you can easily find the place using the information received during those years. A cognitive map can easily be found in your memory and put on current knowledge.

The experiment results also showed that learning can happen with no motivation and even accidentally. What conclusions can be made?

Form your environment in order to learn things subconsciously. Your brain notices hundreds of signals per second, even if you concentrate on a single one. All the information stays in your memory, maybe for long.

Another conclusion: stop going in for things that can’t bring you any use. Consume the necessary info instead, let it even be unconscious. Sooner or later, you will be able to show your great knowledge and experience.