Successful knowledge acquisition requires a cognitive system that is both sensitive to statistical information and able to distinguish among multiple structures (i.e., to detect pattern shifts and form distinct representations). Extensive behavioral evidence has highlighted the importance of cues to structural change, demonstrating how, without them, learners fail to detect pattern shifts and are biased in favor of early experience. Here, we seek a neural account of the mechanism underpinning this primacy effect in learning. During fMRI scanning, adult participants were presented with two artificial languages: a familiar language (L1) on which they had been pretrained followed by a novel language (L2). The languages were composed of the same syllable inventory organized according to unique statistical structures. In the absence of cues to the transition between languages, posttest familiarity judgments revealed that learners on average more accurately segmented words from the familiar language compared with the novel one. Univariate activation and functional connectivity analyses showed that participants with the strongest learning of L1 had decreased recruitment of fronto-subcortical and posterior parietal regions, in addition to a dissociation between downstream regions and early auditory cortex. Participants with a strong new language learning capacity (i.e., higher L2 scores) showed the opposite trend. Thus, we suggest that a bias toward neural efficiency, particularly as manifested by decreased sampling from the environment, accounts for the primacy effect in learning. Potential implications of this hypothesis are discussed, including the possibility that “inefficient” learning systems may be more sensitive to structural changes in a dynamic environment.

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