How a technical concept ‘travels’ the brain

"This provides evidence that appropriate instruction can bring out the fundamental understanding of how things work at a deep level," says Robert Mason. (Credit: Javier Vázquez/Flickr)

Scientists have traced what happens in the brain as someone learns a technical concept.

Published in NeuroImage, the findings reveal how new technical knowledge is built up in the brain during the course of different learning stages.

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

“It will be possible to assess whether some instructional sequences lead to better—or more expert-like—brain outcomes than other sequences. This will enable instructors to ‘teach to the brain’ instead of ‘teaching to the test,'” he says.

How things work

Just and colleague Robert Mason, the lead author of the study, 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.

The explanation sequence allowed the researchers to examine the participants’ brain states after each learning step. For example, the bathroom scale was presented with a schematic diagram and description, “A bathroom scale consists of a lever, a spring, a ratchet, and a dial.”

Then, the operation of the scale was described in a set of causal explanations such as, “The person’s weight exerts a downward force on a lever. The lever pulls a spring downward in proportion to the weight.” An explanation sentence highlighted relevant parts of the schematic design.

Tracking the concept

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 play different roles. At first, the mechanical systems were represented primarily visually, in terms of their physical layout.

In middle stages, the learners used mental animation, imagining the motion of the mechanical components to infer how they interacted in a causal chain, engaging a cortically diverse network of parietal, temporal, and frontal regions.

By the end of the instruction, the participants imagined how a person (most likely themselves) would interact with the system, using both their frontal and motor brain regions.

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“Neuroimaging allows us to investigate not just the end state but also the intermediate brain states during learning,” says Mason, a senior research psychologist and member of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC).

“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.

“This provides evidence that appropriate instruction can bring out the fundamental understanding of how things work at a deep level. In the future, teaching to this deep level as measured in terms of brain representations may be applicable to other disciplines and scientific concepts.”

The Office of Naval Research funded this study.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University