The reason, say Northwestern Medicine neuroscientists in a new study, is that decisions individuals make during learning greatly influence how well the brain retains information. According to the study, the more control an individual has to selectively decide what information is needed to fill gaps in understanding, the more likely the learner is to retain the knowledge.
Published in the journal Neuron, the research for the first time studied real-world learning using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine what factors help people learn, and what areas of the brain are most active during the process. The findings could provide insight into what it means to have a learning disability or memory disorder.
“Rather than just passively absorbing information around us, we are active agents in constant interaction with our environments,” said Joel Voss, PhD, assistant professor of Medical Social Sciences and Neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We found that people vary in how well they are able to acquire the right information to best support their learning, with some being totally ineffective and others being tremendously successful.”
Voss and Jane Wang, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Feinberg, co-authored the paper. They are interested in finding what neurological factors determine successful learning, and how these factors come into play for those with learning disabilities or memory loss.
“This information is novel, and really changes how we think about and address learning problems,” said Wang. “What does it mean to have a learning disability? We have traditionally thought of these disabilities as a problem with retaining information; someone reads a book and can’t recall what he or she read when it’s time for a test. But maybe instead, it’s a problem with acquiring the right kind of information the person needs to commit details to memory.”
Voss and Wang’s latest research builds on prior findings that show having a degree of control during learning can help boost performance during a memory task. The reason why, however, was a mystery. In this experiment, Voss and Wang pinpoint the specific information that people use to make effective decisions during learning and the relevant brain activity for making such decisions.
Their findings also show that no single spot on the brain is responsible for active control of learning. The decisions that people made were associated with interactions between many connected parts of the brain. The strength of these interactions was related to the effectiveness of their information-based choices.
Voss and Wang hope to next use these methods to better identify what it truly means to have a memory disorder.
“Problems with memory are one of the chief complaints in an astonishingly wide range of medical conditions, from athletes with severe concussions to soldiers with brain trauma to elderly adults with Alzheimer’s disease,” said Wang. “Our findings show that people with memory problems don’t just forget what they ate for breakfast, but that they likely have difficulties that extend into many aspects of life, including the effortful acquisition of new information.
“Ongoing studies will help characterize the nature of their deficits and could eventually be used to develop treatments that best help them overcome their limitations.”
This study was funded by National Institutes of Health award number P50-MH094263 from the National Institute of Mental Health and R00-NS069788 and F32-NS083340 from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.