Our brains are always learning how things work, but what is involved in the processing of technical concepts?

That's exactly what a group of scientists from Carnegie Mellon University set out to establish. In a recent study published in NeuroImage, researchers provided 16 healthy adult volunteers with a series of instructions on four mechanical items, detailing how each of them work. The participants were also given diagrams of the bathroom scale, fire extinguisher, trumpet, and car brake system.

As they were learning this new information, the scientific team used fMRI to scan their brains. They followed how each concept made its way from the input of words and images through the brain's various regions. They found that learning how something works is a several-stage process that occurs in different parts of the brain.

First, the visual part of the brain is activated by looking at the images. The middle stages follow with "mental animation" — inwardly picturing the functioning of the given item. That involves the parietal, temporal and frontal regions of the brain. Finally, the frontal and motor brain regions are activated by imagining what it would be like to engage with the particular object — putting everything that has been learned to use.

For example, after seeing the image of the bathroom scale, the volunteers' brains processed the information visually. Then other parts of their brains helped them understand how each part inside the scale moved. Finally, their brains imagined how the scale works.

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

Understanding how the brain processes technical information could help scientists program artificial intelligence to "think" in similar ways, although such advanced AI is a ways off.

In the more immediate sense, the research could see application in the classroom, especially in understanding how well the combination of images and text can work in teaching students science and math.

"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," explained Marcel Just, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon.

"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."

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