Our brains have multiple mechanisms for learning

July 14, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- One of the most important things humans do is learning this kind of pattern: when A happens, B follows. A new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, examines how people learn, and finds that they use different mental processes in different situations.

“There’s a long history in the field of psychology of two different approaches to thinking about how we learn,” says James McClelland of Stanford University, who cowrote the paper with graduate student Daniel Sternberg. One is learning by association; Pavlov’s dog learned to associate food with the sound of a bell. “You learn things because they occur together in time,” McClelland says. In the brain, this probably happens when the neurons that are associated with food and the sound of the bell form a connection.

But there’s another way to learn, too, McClelland says. “If you go into a restaurant, eat two different foods, and get sick, you don’t know which one it was. It could have been the peanut sauce or the shrimp. If you go out the next day and eat shrimp and don’t get sick, you learn, aha, it’s the peanuts that make you sick. But you’re using an explicit reasoning process there.” The experience with the shrimp indirectly influenced what you know about the peanuts.

In practice, these two types of learning often look almost the same – indeed, both types can produce indirect effects as in the shrimp—peanut sauce example. So McClelland and Sternberg devised an experiment to separate the two kinds of . They had people watch a computer screen as objects appeared, singly or in pairs. Sometimes they were followed by a dot. Participants did two different kinds of tasks. They were either given as much time as they wanted to predict whether the dot was coming, or they were told to react quickly to its appearance, something they do better if they have learned which objects tend to be followed by the dot. Some people were instructed that some objects could independently cause the dot to appear; other people were only told to pay attention to the objects.

The results from the experiment show that how people apply what they’ve learned in a new situation depends on what kind of task they’re doing. If the person had as much time as they needed to make a prediction, they only showed an indirect effect if they received the independent cause instructions. On the other hand, if they were forced to react quickly, they showed an indirect effect whether or not they received the independent cause instructions.

“I believe that a huge amount of our cognitive life is pretty automatic,” McClelland says. “Something appears in our visual field or we hear somebody’s voice and it triggers associations or reactions.” So we may learn to associate the sight of a particular food with eating something delicious, or we may learn to associate a particular face with bad feelings. “It wasn’t like we deliberated to come up with these. But at the same time, it’s just not enough to say that’s all there is to it. Of course human beings sit and think.” He suspects that when people learn, we use both of these processes to do—maybe different processes in different situations, or a blend of the two.

Explore further: The surprising connection between two types of perception

Related Stories

The surprising connection between two types of perception

June 14, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- The brain is constantly changing as it perceives the outside world, processing and learning about everything it encounters. In a new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological ...

Want to solve a problem? Don't just use your brain, but your body too

June 1, 2011
When we’ve got a problem to solve, we don’t just use our brains but the rest of our bodies, too. The connection, as neurologists know, is not uni-directional. Now there’s evidence from cognitive psychology ...

Ostracism hurts -- but how? Shedding light on a silent, invisible abuse

April 28, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Humans need to belong. Yet they also commonly leave others out. Animals abandon the weakest to ensure the survival of the fittest. So do kindergartners and ’tweens, softball players and office workers.

Recommended for you

Depression changes structure of the brain, study suggests

July 21, 2017
Changes in the brain's structure that could be the result of depression have been identified in a major scanning study.

Many kinds of happiness promote better health, study finds

July 21, 2017
A new study links the capacity to feel a variety of upbeat emotions to better health.

Study examines effects of stopping psychiatric medication

July 20, 2017
Despite numerous obstacles and severe withdrawal effects, long-term users of psychiatric drugs can stop taking them if they choose, and mental health care professionals could be more helpful to such individuals, according ...

Study finds gene variant increases risk for depression

July 20, 2017
A University of Central Florida study has found that a gene variant, thought to be carried by nearly 25 percent of the population, increases the odds of developing depression.

In making decisions, are you an ant or a grasshopper?

July 20, 2017
In one of Aesop's famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, ...

Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

July 20, 2017
Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 14, 2011
Take the psychology out of 'learning'. Our five senses acquire capabilities during gestation that have very little to do with psychology.


Marcela Peña, Jacques Mehler, and Marina Nespor says this best:

"The findings "suggest that a part of [language learning] is based on the physical property of the stimulus itself, not just on a symbolic mind.""

View psychology differently. Then redefined it. Or live in the past.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.