I grew up playing video games- tons of them. So when I pick up a new one, I just assume the learning curve won’t be that big of a deal. But why is that? Why is it so much easier to learn a new skill if it’s similar to one I already knew? A hyper futuristic study outlined in Nature, explores that very question.
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Stanford mounted a brain to computer interface beneath the skulls of Rhesus Macaques (ouch). This allowed scientists to witness the neural activity associated with learning in real time. More specifically- The monkeys in the study could “move a cursor by thinking about it just as if they were moving their arms and hands to do it. Once they have learned that, the pattern is changed and the monkeys have to learn new thoughts to move the cursor… If there was no earlier established pattern, it took them longer.”
Researchers believe studies like these will lead to new ways to teach, recover from brain trauma and some pretty dope games.
Want more details? If you can get over the jargon, the gory details of the monkey abuse and the fact that you have to have a Nature subscription to even read the original article, feel free. But, why bother with that when you can just read this?:
Researchers in Pittsburgh, using a brain-computer interface, have shown why learning something similar to what you already know — a repertoire of previous knowledge — makes learning new things easier. Learning unfamiliar ideas or behavior is more difficult.
While that sounds self-evident, the researchers have actually watched it happen in animal brains to learn how it works.
“It makes perfect sense, but now we can see it in terms of the brain itself instead of just in terms of looking at someone’s behavior,” said Aaron Batista, assistant professor of bioengineering at the Univ. of Pittsburgh. The team also included researchers from Carnegie Mellon Univ. and Stephen Ryu, a consulting engineer at Stanford Univ. and a neurosurgeon at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in California.
“We see the neuromechanics of it. The entire field of neuroscience tries to reduce behavior to the activity of neurons, and we’ve been able to do that to learning in ways that are novel,” Batista said.
The findings were published in Nature. The study has applications for people who have survived a stroke, or developed other forms of brain damage.
The work also shows the restrictions on learning.
Byron Yu, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon said considerable research had gone into the notion that anything is learnable, but this study shows there are limits to that hypothesis.
In the eight-month study, researchers placed electrodes under the skulls of monkeys to monitor the activity of the brain’s neurons. They linked the electrodes to a device similar to one used to assist quadriplegics and amputees. They mapped the activity in the neurons and matched them to the motion of the cursors.
The signals moved a cursor on the screen.
The monkeys sit with their arms at the side. They have learned, through operant conditioning, that they can move the cursor by thinking about it just as if they were moving their arms and hands to do it. Once they have learned that, the pattern is changed and the monkeys have to learn new thoughts to move the cursor. It is as if, Batista said, they had grown a second spinal cord and were relearning how to move the cursor in a new way. If the pattern matched a previous method, they did it more easily.
If there was no earlier established pattern, it took them longer.
Read more at Lab Equipment