19 August 2011

Efficient Learning via Brain Priming

Externally modulating the brain's activity can boost its performance. The easiest way to manipulate the brain is through transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which involves applying electrodes directly to the head to influence neuron activity with an electric current.

Roi Cohen Kadosh's team at the University of Oxford showed last year that targeting tDCS at the brain's right parietal lobe can boost a person's arithmetic ability - the effects were still apparent six months after the tDCS session (newscientist.com/article/dn19679).

More recently, Richard Chi and Allan Snyder at the University of Sydney, Australia, demonstrated that tDCS can improve a person's insight. The pair applied tDCS to volunteers' anterior frontal lobes - regions known to play a role in how we perceive the world - and found the participants were three times as likely as normal to complete a problem-solving task (newscientist.com/article/dn20080).

Brain stimulation can also boost a person's learning abilities, according to Agnes Flöel's team at the University of Münster in Germany. Twenty minutes of tDCS to a part of the brain called the left perisylvian area was enough to speed up and improve language learning in a group of 19 volunteers (Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2008.20098).

Using the same technique to stimulate the brain's motor cortex, meanwhile, can enhance a person's ability to learn a movement-based skill (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805413106). _NS
In traditional learning psychology, the term "priming" often refers to the concept of "implicit learning (PDF)," where unconscious associations between mental objects often aids recall and memory. But in a larger sense, priming can refer to a wide array of methods to prime the brain for more efficient learning. As mentioned above, different types of direct electromagnetic brain stimulation can serve as "priming" stimuli.

A person can learn to prime the brain for efficient learning to the point where he can eventually dispense with the hardware, once he develops the knack -- using feedback.
Gabrieli and his colleagues used functional MRI scanning to monitor the naturally fluctuating brain activity of 20 volunteers and investigate whether the brain enters such a learning state. While in the scanner, each person was presented with 250 images, one at a time, and asked to memorise them. The volunteers were shown the images again 2 hours later - mixed in with 250 new ones - and asked to remember which they had seen before.

Looking through the results, the team was surprised to find that in the moments before individuals were shown images that they later remembered, they had low levels of activity in the parahippocampal place area - a region of the brain that is known to be highly active during learning. "Maybe the fact that this region was less active meant that the deck was cleared - that it was more open for a stimulus to provoke a response," suggests Gabrieli.

To investigate further, the team attempted to boost subsequent participants' memory test scores by presenting them with images only when they showed this pattern of brain activity. "There was around a 30 per cent improvement in the memory task," Gabrieli says (NeuroImage, DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.07.063).

The MIT team is now working on a way to monitor this "preparedness to learn" using electroencephalography (EEG) - a more portable and much cheaper brain-monitoring technique. Gabrieli's idea is to make learning more efficient by selectively teaching the prepared brain. "You could imagine a computer-based learning system which would stop when the brain is not prepared to learn and restart when it is," he says. _NS
The MIT researchers are able to detect when the brain is ready to learn, by using MRI and EEG. But individuals can teach themselves to detect this "learning readiness state" using neurofeedback.

Using neurofeedback, subjects not only can learn to detect their learning readiness states, but they can learn to actively shift their brain into more efficient learning modes on command. Eventually they can master the skill well enough to do it without the expensive equipment.

This is a type of individual empowerment which is potentially revolutionary and disruptive to society at large. It is particularly threatenting to a power structure which has worked so hard to dominate most levels of academia, media, political agencies, and conventional culture and thought.

Imagine, individuals who are more creative, learn better, can master physical skills more quickly -- and are likely to grow more independent from the herd. It will be interesting to watch these developments.

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