Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Hippocampus Takes Control of Learning

Friday, February 18th, 2011

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.”

See Brain Region, See Other Brain Region Run

Friday, February 26th, 2010

A novel study shows that when learning new words the part of the brain we use depends on whether the words are nouns or verbs.

“Learning nouns activates the left fusiform gyrus, while learning verbs switches on other regions (the left inferior frontal gyrus and part of the left posterior medial temporal gyrus)”, says Catalan researcher Antoni Rodríguez-Fornells, co-author of the study from the Cognition and Brain Plasticity Unit of the University of Barcelona.

He and neurologist Thomas F. Münte from the Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, in Germany, reported their findings of neural differences in acquiring new nouns and verbs in the journal Neuroimage.

By studying real time scans showing brain activation during a language learning exercise the researchers confirmed prior observations that our brains handle nouns and verbs in different ways.

The scientists inserted nonsense words into otherwise meaningful sentences, and then asked the study participants to derive the meaning of the inserted word – “Joe bought his mom a grimo of flowers for Mother’s day…” for instance, indicates that the word “grimo” means “bunch.”

“This task simulates, at an experimental level, how we acquire part of our vocabulary over the course of our lives, by discovering the meaning of new words in written contexts”, explains Rodríguez-Fornells. “This kind of vocabulary acquisition based on verbal contexts is one of the most important mechanisms for learning new words during childhood and later as adults, because we are constantly learning new terms”.

They measured responses to 80 new nouns and 80 new verbs.

“[The] results suggest that the same regions previously associated with the representation of the meaning of nouns and verbs are also associated with establishing correspondences between these meanings and new words, a process that is necessary for learning a second language”, says Rodríguez-Fornells.

Brain Science: The Dog Ate My Striatum…

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Scientists have shown a connection between the size of three particular brain regions and the ability to adapt quickly and perform well on a new set of abstract mental tasks – in this case, a video game (the article makes too much, I think, of the fact that the study used a video game as its measure of learning.)

Brain Regions Linked to Learning

Brain Regions Linked to Learning

The team set out to discover whether physical characteristics in the brain played a role in the variability in learning rates.

“Our animal work has shown that the striatum is a kind of learning machine – it becomes active during habit formation and skill acquisition,” one of the study’s co-principal investigators, Ann Graybiel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in the news release. “So it made a lot of sense to explore whether the striatum might also be related to the ability to learn in humans.”

Thirty-nine subjects, ten men, twenty-nine women, ages 18 to 28, were recruited at the University of Illinois; none had played video games for more than three hours a week in the past two years.

The video game Space Fortress can be manipulated to test various aspects of cognition.

After brain mapping and measuring with an MRI, each subject played a specially created video game for 20 hours. The researchers instructed some players to focus on scoring as many points as possible, and others to shift their priorities between several goals.

Subjects with a more voluminous nucleus accumbens did significantly better in the early stages of training. Those with larger caudate nucleus and putamen, performed better when shifting strategies.

“These are people who had healthy brains,” Erickson said. “These aren’t learning-disabled people. But we were still able to distinguish essentially who would be more affected by the training in this video game.”

The nucleus accumbens has been previously linked to the brain’s emotional response to reward and punishment; more volume here indicates a greater capacity for absorbing the frustrations of the early learning process.

“The putamen and the caudate have been implicated in learning procedures, learning new skills, and those nuclei predicted learning throughout the 20-hour period,” said the University of Illinois’ Arthur Kramer, another co-principal investigator.

“The fact that we could explain more than 20 percent of the variance in learning rates by measuring the volume of only two or three brain regions is actually quite impressive,” Erickson said. “There must be several other brain regions contributing to performance in learning. These other regions are things that other studies will have to track down.”

Read the full article here: Big Brain For Video Games

Working memory and academic success

Monday, September 8th, 2008
Lynn Carahaly

Lynn Carahaly

On Friday I introduced my 15-year old daughter Dorothy to training with Brain Fitness Pro. As Dot notes in her blog post she struggles with tests and with quantitative concepts. We’re both hoping that by strengthening her working-memory she’ll have a more successful time at school. This morning I saw a post from Lynn Carahaly (ASHA-certified speech-language pathologist for The Alcott Center for Cognitive Enhancement, LLC) talking about the critical role of working-memory for academic success.

Lynn gives a clear compelling perspective of someone in the field of learning skills:

“A limited working memory capacity often results in the loss of crucial information when trying to follow instructions. If information is not stored properly, or at all, a child cannot retrieve this information for future tasks or build upon prior information for learning. Children with working memory deficits demonstrate difficulty remembering information from one lesson to the next.”

She also refers to a study by researchers from the University of York who found that working memory capacity for children as young as four years old is a predictor of academic success.

All of which confirms and strengthens my conviction that effectively using neuroplasticity to our advantage will be a significant development in the world of learning and education.