How the brain learns the way things work

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New York, March 18 (IANS) When we learn a new technical concept, something happens in our brain. But exactly what? That has been a mystery until now.

For the first time, scientists have traced the brain processes that occur during the learning of technical concepts.

Published in NeuroImage, the findings reveal how new technical knowledge is built up in the brain.

“After you learn a force applied to an enclosed fluid is involved in the workings of a car’s brakes, and you also learn how a force applied to an enclosed fluid is involved in the workings of a fire extinguisher, the brain representations of these two very different systems increase in their similarity to each other,” said lead author Robert Mason.

“This provides evidence that appropriate instruction can bring out the fundamental understanding of how things work at a deep level,” he added.

“This study yields an initial theory of learning of mechanical systems that can be related to the instructional methods and resulting cognitive processes that underlie science learning,” said professor Marcel Just from the Carnegie Mellon University.

Just and Mason scanned the brains of 16 healthy adults as they learned for the first time how four common mechanical systems work.

While inside the brain scanner, the participants were shown a series of pictures, diagrams and text that described the internal workings of a bathroom scale, fire extinguisher, automobile braking system and trumpet.

Just and Mason were able to use the fMRI images to follow how each new concept made its way from the words and pictures to neural representations over many regions of the brain.

Interestingly, they found that the neural representations progressed through several stages, with each stage involving different parts of the brain that played different roles.

“This will enable instructors to ‘teach to the brain’ instead of ‘teaching to the test’,” Just said.

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