How changes in neural engagement helps in learning

How changes in neural engagement helps in learning

We've all heard the adage, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," but new research from finds that it isn't all about repetition. Rather, internal states like engagement can also have an impact on learning.

The collaborative research, published in Nature Neuroscience, examined how changes in internal states, such as arousal, attention, motivation, and engagement can affect the learning process using brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. Findings suggest that changes in internal states can systematically influence how behavior improves with learning, thus paving the way for more effective methods to teach people skills quickly, and to a higher level of proficiency.

Using a BCI learning paradigm, the researchers observed how neural activity changed, and the degree to which these changes were influenced by shifts in internal states, as subjects performed tasks by moving a cursor on a computer screen using only patterns of neural activity.

As the study unfolded, the team began to notice occasional large, abrupt fluctuations in neural population activity within the motor cortex. At first, they did not understand why this was happening, but over time, they came to realize that the fluctuations happened whenever the subject was surprised with a change in the task. (Changes ranged from brief pauses to perturbations of the BCI mapping.) At these moments, the subjects' pupils dilated, suggesting that the abrupt fluctuation was the neural manifestation of an internal state, engagement.

"We weren't looking for this particular effect in the neural data," says the senior author. "The pupil diameter was tightly correlated with the engagement signal that we saw in the neural activity, and it seems to have a massive effect in the motor cortex."

Ultimately, the research suggests that subjects' level of engagement or attention can make things easier or harder to learn, depending on the context.

"You might have imagined that the brain would be set up with a clear segregation of functions, like motor areas to motor control, and emotional areas to emotional control, and sensory areas to sensory representation," says another author. "What we're finding is a serendipitous kind of intrusion of an internal state into a motor area. It could be that we can harness that signal to improve learning."