The detection of unexpected events is a fundamental process of learning. Theories of cognitive control and previous imaging results indicate a prominent role of the prefrontal cortex in the evaluation of the congruency between expected and actual outcome. In most cases, this attributed function is based on results where the person is consciously aware of the discrepancy. In this functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) study, we examined violations of predicted outcomes that did not enter conscious awareness. Two groups were trained with nearly identical material and the effects of new stimuli were assessed after learning. For the first group, the material was arranged with a hidden regularity. In this incidental learning situation, volunteers acquired implicit knowledge about structural response regularities as was demonstrated by an increase in reaction time when introducing new stimuli that violated the learned relations. To differentiate the detection process of stimuli that deviate from learned expectations from more un-specific effects generated by novel, unfamiliar stimuli, the second group was trained with rearranged material without a hidden regularity. No behavioral effects were found for the introduction of new stimuli in the group without implicit learning. Comparing the two groups, specific fMRI effects concerning the violation of implicitly learned expectations were found in the ventral prefrontal cortex and in the medial-temporal lobe.
In accord with theories of learning, the results show a direct influence of the detection of prediction errors on the neuronal activity in learning related structures even in the absence of conscious knowledge about the predictions or their violations.