Summary: Alterations in internal states can influence how behavior improves with learning.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

We’ve all heard the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” but new research from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh 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 Steve Chase, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon and the Neuroscience Institute. “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.”

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. Image is in the public domain

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 Aaron Batista, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. “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.”

The group’s work is ongoing and done in collaboration with the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition, a cross-university research and educational program between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh that leverages each institution’s strengths to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms that give rise to biological intelligence and behavior.

“One of the unique parts of our collaboration is how integrated we all have been throughout the entire project, from experimental design, to experimental conduction, to data analyses, and adopting; we’re all involved in all parts of that,” says Byron Yu, professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon. “The findings here might one day help people learn everyday skills, such as math or dance, more quickly and to a higher level of proficiency.”

About this learning and neuroscience research news

Source: Carnegie Mellon University
Contact: Sara Vaccar – Carnegie Mellon University
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
“Learning is shaped by abrupt changes in neural engagement” by Jay A. Hennig, Emily R. Oby, Matthew D. Golub, Lindsay A. Bahureksa, Patrick T. Sadtler, Kristin M. Quick, Stephen I. Ryu, Elizabeth C. Tyler-Kabara, Aaron P. Batista, Steven M. Chase & Byron M. Yu. Nature Neuroscience


Abstract

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Learning is shaped by abrupt changes in neural engagement

Internal states such as arousal, attention and motivation modulate brain-wide neural activity, but how these processes interact with learning is not well understood. During learning, the brain modifies its neural activity to improve behavior. How do internal states affect this process?

Using a brain–computer interface learning paradigm in monkeys, we identified large, abrupt fluctuations in neural population activity in motor cortex indicative of arousal-like internal state changes, which we term ‘neural engagement.’ In a brain–computer interface, the causal relationship between neural activity and behavior is known, allowing us to understand how neural engagement impacted behavioral performance for different task goals.

We observed stereotyped changes in neural engagement that occurred regardless of how they impacted performance. This allowed us to predict how quickly different task goals were learned.

These results suggest that changes in internal states, even those seemingly unrelated to goal-seeking behavior, can systematically influence how behavior improves with learning.



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