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How Your Brain Learns New Things

04/20/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015
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Have you ever met someone who learns new things easily? Spanish, algebra, the piano -- all mastered with ease while you struggle to memorize verb conjugations, formulas and which key is middle C.

Maybe you're the person who has no trouble picking up a new skill, but when friends ask how you do it you have no idea.

A new study published in Nature Neuroscience may have an answer. After studying subjects' brain activity as they figured out a new game, researchers discovered different neural activity in those who learned the game fastest.

Ultimately, researchers identified the main factor in learning speed as using extraneous parts of the brain. Has anyone ever told you to stop thinking so much? This is essentially what happens in the brain to slow down the learning process.

The Experiment

Subjects in the study attempted to complete an easy activity as their brains were monitored with fMRI, which shows blood flow in the brain. This allowed researchers to see which parts of the brain were activated as participants learned the new game.

The game consisted of six different patterns of 10 colored notes. Each subject was shown the same six patterns multiple times and had to follow along by pushing buttons on hand-held controllers. While the patterns appeared on a screen, subjects tried to play the patterns with as much speed and accuracy as they could manage.

The next phase of the experiment was at-home practice with researchers following subjects' activity from a distance. Then participants returned to the lab to have their brain activity scanned at two-, four- and six-week periods. These later scans showed the effect practice had on subjects' mastery of the game. Researchers found that while everyone improved, some mastered the game right away while others made more gradual progress.

How the Brain Learns

"It's useful to think of your brain as housing a very large toolkit," said researcher Scott Grafton, a professor at UC Santa Barbara. "When you start to learn a challenging new skill, such as playing a musical instrument, your brain uses many different tools in a desperate attempt to produce anything remotely close to music. With time and practice, fewer tools are needed and core motor areas are able to support most of the behavior. What our laboratory study shows is that beyond a certain amount of practice, some of these cognitive tools might actually be getting in the way of further learning."

By looking at the brain as a whole instead of focusing on one region to see if it would light up during scans, researchers could study learning as the complex process it is; a process that utilizes more than one part of the brain. In fact, there were 112 regions identified by researchers. They searched participants' brain scans for matching activity among regions. This closely identical activity indicated communication between two or more parts of the brain. Such communication is called community structure or a network within the brain.

Less is More with Brain Activity and Learning

So what's the takeaway? The researchers' conclusion is surprising: Subjects whose brains demonstrated lowered neural activity also learned the fastest.

Also surprising is the fact that this lowered activity had nothing to do with regions of the brain that control gross motor skills and visual processing; in other words, the parts of the brain that allowed subjects to see the notes on the screen and press the corresponding buttons.

Instead, the brain regions in which less activity was better were the executive function regions of the brain: the frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.

Executive function refers to a set of mental traits associated with goal-setting and achievement. These traits include the ability to make and follow through with a plan, resist impulses, pay attention and learn from past experiences.

The frontal cortex isn't fully developed until young adulthood, which might explain why it's easier for children to learn languages and other new skills. The frontal cortex is certainly useful for higher-order thinking and complex tasks, but when it comes to learning simple tasks quickly, executive function seems to be a hindrance.

The next task for researchers is to figure out how some people are able to slow down or block executive function while they learn. In the meantime, don't overthink it the next time you try something new.