Been there, done that: Brain mechanism predicts ability to generalize

Oct 22, 2008

A new study reveals how the brain can connect discrete but overlapping experiences to provide a rich integrated history that extends far beyond individually experienced events and may help to direct future choices. The research, published by Cell Press in the October 23rd issue of the journal Neuron, also explains why some people are good at generalizing from past experience, while others are not.

Decisions are often guided by drawing on past experiences, perhaps by generalizing across discrete events that overlap in content. However, how such experiences are integrated into a unified representation is not clear, and fundamental questions remain regarding potential underlying brain mechanisms. It is likely that such mechanisms involve the hippocampus, a brain structure closely linked with learning and memory. The midbrain may also play a role, as its projections modulate activity in the hippocampus, and activity in both regions has been shown to facilitate encoding of individual episodes.

Dr. Daphna Shohamy from the Department of Psychology at Columbia University was interested in examining how past experiences might be integrated within the brain to create generalizations that guide future decisions. "We hypothesized that generalization stems from integrative encoding that occurs while experiencing events that partially overlap with previously encoded events and that such integrative encoding depends on both the hippocampus and midbrain dopamine regions. Further, we anticipated that greater hippocampal-midbrain engagement during integrative encoding enables rapid behavioral generalization in the future," offers Dr. Shohamy.

Dr. Shohamy and her collaborator, Dr. Anthony Wagner from the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study participants engaged in an associative learning and generalization task. They found that activity in the hippocampus and midbrain during learning predicted generalization and observed a cooperative interaction between the hippocampus and the midbrain during integrative encoding.

"By forming a thread that connects otherwise separate experiences, integrative encoding permits organisms to generalize across multiple past experience to guide choices in the present," explains Dr. Shohamy. "In people who generalize successfully, the brain is constantly building links across separate events, creating an integrated memory of life's episodes. For others, although the brain may accurately remember each past event, this integration does not occur, so that when confronted with a new situation, they are unable to flexibly apply what they learned in the past."

Source: Cell Press

Explore further: 3-D printing offers innovative method to deliver medication

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Neural 3-D compass discovered in mammalian brain

Dec 03, 2014

Pilots are trained to guard against vertigo: a sudden loss of the sense of vertical direction that renders them unable to tell "up" from "down" and sometimes even leads to crashes. Coming up out of a subway ...

Light field microscopy for whole brain activity maps

Jan 29, 2014

(Phys.org) —Advances in light-sheet microscopy have led to impressive images and videos of the brain in action. With this technique, a plane of light is scanned through the sample to excite fluorescent ...

Scientists shed some light on biological "dark matter"

Jan 20, 2014

Biologists have studied the functionality of a poorly understood category of genes, which produce long non-coding RNA molecules rather than proteins. Some of these genes have been conserved throughout evolution, ...

Recommended for you

3-D printing offers innovative method to deliver medication

4 hours ago

3-D printing could become a powerful tool in customizing interventional radiology treatments to individual patient needs, with clinicians having the ability to construct devices to a specific size and shape. That's according ...

Mystery of the reverse-wired eyeball solved

Feb 27, 2015

From a practical standpoint, the wiring of the human eye - a product of our evolutionary baggage - doesn't make a lot of sense. In vertebrates, photoreceptors are located behind the neurons in the back of the eye - resulting ...

Neurons controlling appetite made from skin cells

Feb 27, 2015

Researchers have for the first time successfully converted adult human skin cells into neurons of the type that regulate appetite, providing a patient-specific model for studying the neurophysiology of weight ...

Quality control for adult stem cell treatment

Feb 27, 2015

A team of European researchers has devised a strategy to ensure that adult epidermal stem cells are safe before they are used as treatments for patients. The approach involves a clonal strategy where stem cells are collected ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.