How brain learns to act automatically

UC SANTA BARBARA (US) — People who excel at a particular activity don’t necessarily excel at teaching or explaining that activity to others.

That’s because motor skills are learned in one part of the brain and classroom instruction and information read in a book are acquired in another area, according to a new study.

This second area of learning is the frontal cortex—the area immediately behind the forehead –– where executive function is located.

A study of different categories of learning is reported in the current issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

A group of 16 undergraduate students took part in thousands of visual tests, so psychologists could study their responses. A significant number of the trials took place using fMRI, which allowed scientists to observe areas of the brain during testing.

Tasks with explicit reasoning behind them were much simpler for test subjects, the researchers found.

“When you can’t explain the reasoning, it takes test subjects about 10 times as many trials to master,” explains F. Gregory Ashby, professor of psychology at University of California, Santa Barbara.

These areas without explicit reasoning are grasped in a lower part of the brain, the basal ganglia. “It is similar to the fact that you can’t explain what your fingers are doing when you are playing the piano.”

However, once a behavior becomes automatic, it becomes cortical. “Automatic behaviors are stored in similar ways, in the frontal cortex, regardless which system of the brain learned it first,” he says.

Ashby cites the example of an excellent tennis player with Parkinson’s disease. Scientists used to think that tennis skills were stored in the basal ganglia, where they were learned, and the area of the brain affected by Parkinson’s disease.

The player, however, was able to hit moving tennis balls with the same skill exhibited before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Ashby says that’s because it was an automatic response for him, one that is entirely mediated in the cortical area.

This could explain why people can react quickly with an automatic response to an event that is first perceived in sensory areas, such as seeing an oncoming vehicle and slamming on the brakes.

These automatic behaviors are stored in similar ways regardless of which brain system learned the behavior first.

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