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The brain uses the same neural networks to engage in conscious and unconscious learning

(October 31, 2002) - Bethesda, MD How do we learn? At the same time, when learning is conscious, does the brain engage in learning based on experience? Many scientists have believed that the two processes are independent of each other. Now, new research findings published in the current edition of the Journal of Neurophysiology, suggest otherwise.

Background

Procedural learning, such as perceptual-motor sequence learning, is thought to be an obligatory consequence of practiced performance and to reflect adaptive plasticity in the neural systems mediating performance. Prior neuroimaging studies, however, have found that sequence learning accompanied with awareness (declarative learning) of the sequence activates entirely different brain regions than learning without awareness of the sequence (procedural learning). However, conflicts between imaging and behavioral studies have not resolved whether true independence exists between the two brain functions.

The Study

A breakthrough imaging study has created conditions that allow for such direct comparison of simultaneous procedural and declarative learning. A team of physiologists used an MRI to discover whether declarative learning does or does not prevent learning in procedural memory systems. They created conditions in which subjects were simultaneously learning different sequences under implicit or explicit instructions.

The authors of "Direct Comparison of Neural Systems Mediating Conscious and Unconscious Skill Learning," are Daniel B. Willingham, from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA; Joanna Salidis, from Stanford University, Stanford, CA; and John D.E. Gabriel, representing both institutions. Their findings appeared in the September 2002 edition of the Journal of Neurophysiology, a journal of the American Physiological Society (APS).

Methodology

Ten males and nine females, all right-handed, participated in the study.
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Contact: Donna Krupa
djkrupa1@aol.com
703-527-7357
American Physiological Society
5-Nov-2002


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