Brain research shows past experience is invaluable for complex decision making

May 13, 2009

Researchers funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) have shown that past experience really does help when we have to make complex decisions based on uncertain or confusing information. They show that learning from experience actually changes the circuitry in our brains so that we can quickly categorise what we are seeing and make a decision or carry out appropriate actions. The research is published today (13 May) in Neuron.

Lead researcher, Dr Zoe Kourtzi from the University of Birmingham, said: "What we have found is that learning from past experience actually rewires our brains so that we can categorise the things we are looking at, and respond appropriately to them in any context.

In selecting a course of action that is most likely to be successful, the brain has to interpret and assign meaning to inherently uncertain sensory information - being able to do this is vital for our survival! This ability is especially critical when we are responding and acting in relation to that are highly similar to each other. For example, this is what is happening when you are trying to recognise friends in a crowd or discern a from healthy tissue on a medical scan.

"We have shown that this learning process is not just a matter of learning the structure of the physical world - when I look at something I'm not just playing a game of 'snap' in my head where I try to match images to each other. In fact, areas in our brains are actually trained to learn the rules that determine the way we interpret sensory information.''

Dr Kourtzi and colleagues wanted to find out about the mechanisms that mediate flexible decision making through learning, which have so far not been well understood, despite it being fairly clear that successful decisions benefit from previous experience. They combined measurements of behaviour and brain signals to study how volunteers learned to discriminate between highly similar visual patterns and to assign them in different categories.

Volunteers used two different rules to assign visual patterns into categories. As a result, patterns belonging to the same category based on one of the rules could be members of different categories based on the alternate rule. "This flexible learning paradigm allowed us to test for brain changes related to the perceived rather than the physical similarity between visual patterns," explains Dr. Kourtzi. "Our use of brain imaging in combination with mathematical techniques enabled us to extract sensitive information about brain signals that reflected the participant's choice."

"What we've shown is that we don't just get better at the task of picking out a familiar face amongst a crowd, for example. Our results tell us that previous experience can train circuits in our brains to recognise perceived categories rather than simply the physical similarity between visual patterns," said Dr Kourtzi. "Based on what we found, we propose that learned information about categories is actually retained in brain circuits in the posterior areas of the brain. From there we think it is fed through to circuits in frontal areas that translate this information into flexible decisions and appropriate actions depending on the requirements and context of the task."

Dr Janet Allen, Director of Research, BBSRC said: "We have to be able to understand how healthy brains work before we can see what has gone wrong when a person's brain is affected by disease. This work also shows that the complex human has evolved an incredibly effective mechanism for making good decisions that lead to successful everyday actions - something that has surely been a significant evolutionary advantage."

Source: Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (news : web)

Explore further: Celebrities in 'Ice Bucket Challenge' to fight disease

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Brain's Filing System Uncovered

Aug 28, 2006

Socks in the sock drawer, shirts in the shirt drawer, the time-honored lessons of helping organize one’s clothes learned in youth. But what parts of the brain are used to encode such categories as socks, ...

How the Brain Learns to See

Jun 09, 2005

Most of us don’t have much trouble recognizing what we see. Whether it is a face in a crowd, a bird in a tree, or papers on a desk, our brains expertly distinguish the target from the clutter. It is a simple skill most ...

Picower research finds unexpected activity in visual cortex

Mar 16, 2006

For years, neural activity in the brain's visual cortex was thought to have only one job: to create visual perceptions. A new study by researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory shows that visual cortical ...

Recommended for you

Celebrities in 'Ice Bucket Challenge' to fight disease

7 hours ago

Steven Spielberg, Justin Bieber and Bill Gates are among many celebrities pouring buckets of ice water over their heads and donating to fight Lou Gehrig's disease, in a fundraising effort that has gone viral.

Study helps explain why elderly have trouble sleeping

8 hours ago

As people grow older, they often have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, and tend to awaken too early in the morning. In individuals with Alzheimer's disease, this common and troubling symptom ...

Targeted brain training may help you multitask better

10 hours ago

The area of the brain involved in multitasking and ways to train it have been identified by a research team at the IUGM Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal and the University of Montreal.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

superhuman
not rated yet May 14, 2009
How to get a publication with minimum effort:
1. get 20 students to do something in the brain scanner
2. produce some vague speculations,
3. come to an obvious conclusion, like "experience helps in making decisions,"
4. profit