Brain Flexibility is Key to Learning

It’s not the size of your brain that counts, it’s the diversity of cooperation. That is essentially the conclusion of an international team of researchers using MRIs of various people performing some tasks.

In a paper published in PNAS, scientists from Oxford University, UC Santa Barbara, and UNC Chapel Hill reported on new computational techniques that allowed them to associate brain activity—specifically, the different combinations of 112 regions of the brain firing at the same time—with one’s speed in learning something new.

The experiment was conducted with 18 volunteers each instructed to push a series of buttons as quickly as possible. What the researches discovered after analyzing the brain images is that those with brains that rapidly changed the regions that were jointly active (“swapped partners”) were more likely to quickly learn new sequences in later sessions. Computational methods were developed to analyze the “multilayer networks” in aggregate, treating the brain like a social network—each region plays the part of a person. This process dealt with an extremely large dataset and took 10,000 days of computing time to complete. This was the reason the initial sample size was so small, but the researchers are now working on both extending the pool and refining their tools.

Learning is not just a function of biochemical mechanics. Another recent study—this one by collaborators from Columbia University, Washington University, and Northwestern University—shows that psychological belief about learning itself will affect how willing a person is to engage and master new concepts, leading to different impressions of their own learning.

This second study centered around two theories of learning. Entity theorists believe each person’s intelligence potential is fixed, and no additional effort can change that. These people will disengage when a challenge exceeds their threshold. Incremental theorists, on the other hand, believe intelligence can change. More time invested in learning yields better results.

In their experiment, the researchers gave subjects foreign words to learn. Everyone did better recalling the easy word pairs (e.g., Polisi-Police) than the difficult ones (e.g., Pembalut-Bandage), but entity theorists—the ones who were more confident when spending less time studying—had a more accurate perception of this effect than incrementalists—those whose confidence increased with study time. Incremental theorists tended to be overconfident about the difficult pairs and under-confident about the easy ones.

I’m not a brain scientist, but it would seem that these two distinct theories might also impact the value of knowing one’s brain flexibility. From an entity theorist perspective, perhaps your brain can only ever become so flexible, and speed of learning might correlate to one’s threshold for pursuing new challenges. An incrementalist would see flexibility as something that could be exercised into more adaptive learning behavior.