Why do some people naturally excel at learning instruments, languages, or technology while others take longer to pick up new knowledge? Learning requires the brain to encode information, changing its neural “wiring” and creating networks between brain regions.
In a new study, researchers at the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Germany looked at how brain activation patterns might affect how long it takes for new information to really stick in the brain.
Earlier research has suggested that part of what might slow down learners is over-thinking. A 2015 study led by Danielle Bassett, Eduardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow and associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering, showed a correlation between slow learning and cognitive control: the brain’s ability to regulate itself by activating the necessary networks and inhibiting unnecessary activity. In that study, when people unnecessarily engaged parts of the brain linked to cognitive control, they were more likely to take longer to learn a simple task.
But beyond what might make an individual learn more slowly, the researchers want to know what sort of geometric patterns of brain activity make for better learning.
Their new study was led by Bassett and Evelyn Tang, who was an Africk Family Postdoctoral Fellow in Bassett’s Complex Systems Lab before starting at the Max Planck Institute this fall. Sharon Thompson-Schill, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor and chair of Psychology, also contributed to the study.
The study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
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