Key to learning unlocked? Pattern recognition study could yield better tools for soaking in information

Steve Jobs once said, “Learn continually – there’s always ‘one more thing’ to learn.” There are countless quotes from celebrities and historical figures which are pro-learning; I found none that were anti-learning. Thousands of people in agreement — that alone is newsworthy! Learning could be a starting point for all of us to find common ground.

Different regions of the human brain interact to extract patterns over time. These lay the foundation for clarifying how certain adaptive behaviors work, such as learning languages. A new study at the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST) in South Korea has improved understanding of this “learning about learning.”

Statistical learning is the ability of human brains to recognize patterns over time. These patterns and processes can be used to predict future events, and contribute to many other cognitive functions. Better understanding of the mechanisms of statistical learning may reveal ways to improve additional learning mechanisms.

DGIST neuroscientist Hyeon-Ae Jeon, and Jungtak Park, a graduate student, and colleagues sought to develop a detailed, comprehensive map of brain regions which are active during statistical learning, and how these brain regions are interconnected.

The team used a brain scanning technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to visualize the active areas of the brain with high resolution. During the scanning, participants were presented with visual stimuli at unpredictable and irregular intervals.  Statistical learning occurred when some stimuli were presented more frequently than others.

Statistical analysis of the data collected, when linked with the participants learning progression and activity in the whole brain, yielded surprising results. Participants’ reaction times to the stimuli improved significantly. The subjects, however, reported that they did not notice any regularity in the stimuli, and were unaware that their brains had recognized a pattern.

Study authors identified five brain regions that were activated during the scanning. The superior frontal gyrus showed the most activity, and the strongest correlation with the progression of statistical learning.

The team found, also, that these five regions connected to other brain areas vital to attention and language. These connections, however, were weaker during active test sequences, compared to resting times between test sequences. This was especially apparent in the superior frontal gyrus, demonstrating its relevance to statistical learning. 

The researchers conclude that weaker functional connections of the five key regions to other brain areas lead to more effective learning of new information, including new patterns from the environment. The DGIST team hopes that their work will lead to developing protocols which enhance human learning.

The study is published in the journal NeuroImage.

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About the Author

Dr. Faith Coleman

Faith A. Coleman MD
Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

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