Scientists get first-ever visual glimpse into how new concepts form inside brain
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have managed to observe how different new knowledge is stored and how combinations of different pieces of this fresh information affect different parts of the brain. This is eventually used to tell the observer what the person is thinking about.
The accompanying research is published in the journal Human Brain Mapping.
University neuroscientist Marcel Just used the example of the 2013 discovery by the Smithsonian Institute of an entirely new species – an olinguito, which is a small South American carnivorous mammal. Those learning about the animal were able to immediately pickup new information for the first time, such as its habitat, diet, behaviour and so on.
“Millions of people read the information about the olinguito and in doing so permanently changed their own brains,” Just explained.
“Our research happened to be examining this process precisely at that time in a laboratory setting. When people learned that the olinguito eats mainly fruit instead of meat, a region of their left inferior frontal gyrus—as well as several other areas—stored the new information according to its own code.”
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The team also learned that people store new knowledge and its bits in the same way, using “the same filing system,” in the same brain areas.
Just and PhD student and lead author Andrew Bauer then gathered 16 study participants and monitored their brain activity while teaching them new information about eight extinct species of animals. They observed the emergence of new concepts in their brains by using an MRI machine, as the hour-long ingestion of new information progressed.
Having already conducted prior research in the field of brain imaging, the team knew where certain bits of information would pop up, such as information about an animal’s habitat or its dietary habits. Each category lights up a different part of the brain.
As all new concepts had different “activation signatures,” the scientists were able to see with the help of a computer program, which concepts the participants were thinking about, virtually allowing them to read their brains.
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According to Just, “The activation signature of a concept is a composite of the different types of knowledge of the concept that a person has stored, and each type of knowledge is stored in its own characteristic set of regions.”
The team gained further insight into how the brain manages information. For example, new information does not eclipse something learned five minutes ago. Instead, “Each time we learn something, we permanently change our brains in a systematic way,” Bauer explains.
In conducting the research, Carnegie Mellon fused two prominent research areas at the university – one dealing with studying how brain architecture gives rise to complex behaviors; and one dealing with increasing the effectiveness of student learning.
Just and Bauer hope that knowing how the brain ingests new information could prove very useful to understanding the nature of better learning – what a student has problems with, or which bits of knowledge, which sink in better than others.