Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have documented how newly learned concepts form in the brain and found that these occur in the same areas of the brain, which means that the "filing system" of the brain is the same for everybody.
For their experiment, the researchers taught 16 individuals about the habits and diet of eight different extinct animals and observed how they processed new information.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, they found that each of the participants had a specific brain activation signature, which indicates neural activity, for the different animals.
Each of the participants had particular regions in their brain that stored the new information about the animals' diet as well as regions that are dedicated to storing information about where the animals lived.
"The activation signature of a concept is a composite of the different types of knowledge of the concept that a person has stored, and each type of knowledge is stored in its own characteristic set of regions," said neuroscientist Marcel Just, from CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Because each of the animals also invoked certain types of brain activity, the researchers were able to use fMRI images to know what animal each of the persons involved in the study was thinking about at a particular time.
Although each of the animals had a unique activation signature, those that have similar properties such as those with similar habitat were found to have similar activation signatures, showing that the activation signatures are not merely arbitrary patterns. They are also meaningful and can be interpreted.
The researchers stated that the process was, in effect, able to read the minds of the participants while they contemplated a brand-new thought.
The result of the experiment also revealed that once an animal's property was learned, the information remains intact in the brain regardless whether other properties of the animal are learned. This shows the relative neural durability of what people learn. Study author Andrew Bauer said that whenever humans learn something, it permanently changes the brain in a systematic way.
"This study provides a foundation for brain research to trace how a new concept makes its way from the words and graphics used to teach it, to a neural representation of that concept in a learner's brain," Bauer and colleagues wrote in their study, which was published in Human Brain Mapping on June 2.
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