While neuroscientists know a great deal about how the brain learns, they did not know much about how the brain chooses what to focus on while it learns until now. Researchers at Stanford University looking into this conundrum think they have found the answer, and it came with a little surprise.
Learning is a complicated process. It’s not just a matter of focus and paying attention. The brain needs to decipher and decide which signals from the environment are important. Messages come from the senses like hearing and seeing. Also, it needs to continually monitor which details are essential to remember and to keep for the long term. Tracking how the brain did this has been a mystery.
Learning as a fundamental concept happens because of feedback. You do something and have a positive response; you will do it again. For example, you eat something that tastes good like a piece of chocolate, and the experience is positive. You will continue to eat chocolate. At the other end of the spectrum, when you burn your fingers on a flame, the experience is negative, and you avoid touching fire.
While psychologist and neuroscientist have studied classical conditioning (reward and punishment) learning processes and charted different parts of the brain associated with feedback, there were still unanswered questions.
Sorting Through the Detail
When you realize the amount of information the brain perceives in just one day and what it needs to decide that is important to learn and retain, you appreciate how complicated its job. Every day the brain sorts through a slew of details. How does it decide what to keep?
The researchers at Stanford believe the organization of details comes from the paraventricular thalamus (PVT) area of the brain. The PVT acts as a gatekeeper. It recognizes and tracks the most necessary information in a given situation.
“‘We showed thalamic cells play a very important role in keeping track of the behavioral significance of stimuli, which nobody had done before…” – Xiaoke Chen lead author and member of Stanford Bio-X and the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute.
Besides mapping the brain and being of interest, the results can have real-world benefits. Xiaoke Chen, assistant professor of biology at Stanford and lead author of the study, says the findings give other researchers an area of the brain to study when they want to understand aspects of learning, such as the impact of paying attention has on learning.
It also gives scientists a new way to control learning in their research. In other words, the results could direct researchers to ways to modulate learning. The findings also have the possibility of leading to therapies to treat conditions such as drug addiction. Treatments could be designed that teach addicts to “unlearn the association between taking a drug and the subsequent high.”
The surprise for the researchers was discovering that the decision process happened in the thalamus; it was not expected. The reason is that the thalamus wasn’t considered to be sophisticated enough to make decisions. Up until now, it was understood that its primary job was to relay sensory information to other areas of the brain.
- How the Brain Decides What to Learn (October 26, 2018). Retrieved from https://neurosciencenews.com/pvt-learning-10095/.
- Collins, Nathan. Stanford researchers learn how the brain decides what to learn (October 25, 2018). Retrieved from https://news.stanford.edu/2018/10/25/brain-decides-learn/.
- Collins, Nathan, Stanford researchers learn how the brain decides what to learn, October 25, 2018. Web.