Hippocampus Takes Control of Learning

Each week my first grade son brings home a new set of “spelling words”. It’s often a struggle to get him to focus on word study when a Clone Wars Lego project beckons. But this week my wife, faced with a particularly thorny set of new words, hit on the idea of getting Zane to integrate them into a star wars story. Fantastic!  Twenty minutes later we had a new scene synopsis for George Lucas complete with snakes and licks and dukes, and the next day Zane scored 100% on his spelling review.

Logical, inspired, and now supported by a new research study, the idea that we learn better when we have some active engagement in the learning process makes ample sense but seems to be sadly lacking from many pedagogical strategies.

Neal Cohen, University of Illinois psychology and Beckman Institute professor led the study with postdoctoral researcher Joel Voss. “Having active control over a learning situation is very powerful and we’re beginning to understand why,” commented Cohen. “Whole swaths of the brain not only turn on, but also get functionally connected when you’re actively exploring the world.”

Brain Training Online

Focused on the hippocampus and several other integrated brain regions, Voss asked participants to memorize an array of objects and their locations on a grid, one at a time. Participants with some control were permitted to reveal the objects themselves.

“They could inspect whatever they wanted, however they wanted, in whatever order for however much time they wanted, and they were just told to memorize everything on the screen,” Voss said. The “passive” learners instead reviewed a replay of the grid movements recorded in a previous trial by an active subject.

To complete the exercise the subjects tried to replicate the layout of the objects in the grid from memory. The active and passive subjects then changed roles and performed the task again with a new set of objects.

Recording significant differences in brain activity in the active and passive learners, Cohen and Voss found that the learners with had active control remembered the object placement significantly more accurately than the passive learners.

The researchers repeated the trials with people suffering memory impairment due to hippocampal damage. Surprisingly, these learners failed didn’t benefit from actively controlling the viewing window.

“These data suggest that the hippocampus has a role not just in the formation of new memory but possibly also in the beneficial effects of volitional control on memory,” the researchers wrote.

Confirming this hypothesis, further tests with fMRI showed the highest hippocampal activity in the active subjects’ brains. These tests also showed greater engagement in several other brain structures when the subject controlled the viewing window, and greater synchronization of activity in these brain regions and the hippocampus than in the passive trials.

Activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the cerebellum and the hippocampus was higher, and more highly coordinated, in participants who did well on spatial recall, the researchers found. Increased activity in the inferior parietal lobe, the parahippocampal cortex and the hippocampus corresponded to better performance on item recognition.

“Lo and behold,” Cohen said, “our friend the hippocampus makes a very conspicuous appearance in active learning.”

The new findings challenge previous ideas about the role of the hippocampus in learning, Voss said. It is a surprise, he said, that other brain regions that are known to be involved in planning and strategizing, for instance, “can’t do very much unless they can interact with the hippocampus.”

Rather than being a passive player in learning, the hippocampus “is more like an integral part of an airplane guidance system,” Voss said. “You have all this velocity information, you have a destination target and every millisecond it’s taking in information about where you’re headed, comparing it to where you need to go, and correcting and updating it.”

The paper:
“Hippocampal Brain-network Coordination During Volitional Exploratory Behavior Enhances Learning.”

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