Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Primitive Brain Is 'Smarter' Than We Think, MIT Study Shows

Date:
March 14, 2005
Source:
Massachusetts Institute Of Technology
Summary:
Primitive structures deep within the brain may have a far greater role in our high-level everyday thinking processes than previously believed, report researchers at the MIT Picower Center for Learning and Memory in the Feb. 24 issue of Nature.

Primitive structures deep within the brain may have a far greater role in our high-level everyday thinking processes than previously believed, report researchers at the MIT Picower Center for Learning and Memory in the Feb. 24 issue of Nature.

The results of this study led by Earl K. Miller, associate director of the Picower Center at MIT, have implications about how we learn. The new knowledge also may lead to better understanding and treatment for autism and schizophrenia, which could result from an imbalance between primitive and more advanced brain systems.

Our brains have evolved a fast, reliable way to learn rules such as "stop at red" and "go at green." Dogma has it that the "big boss" lobes of the cerebral cortex, responsible for daily and long-term decision-making, learn the rules first and then transfer the knowledge to the more primitive, large forebrain region known as the basal ganglia, buried under the cortex.

Although both regions are known to be involved in learning rules that become automatic enough for us to follow without much thought, no one had ever determined each one's specific role.

In this study, Miller, who is the Picower Professor of Neuroscience, and postdoctoral associate Anitha Pasupathy found that in monkeys, the striatum (the input structure of the basal ganglia) showed more rapid change in the learning process than the more highly evolved prefrontal cortex. Their results suggest that the basal ganglia first identify the rule, and then "train" the prefrontal cortex, which absorbs the lesson more slowly.

"These findings suggest new ways of thinking about learning," Miller said. "They suggest that new learning isn't simply the smarter bits of our brain such as the cortex 'figuring things out.' Instead, we should think of learning as interaction between our primitive brain structures and our more advanced cortex. In other words, primitive brain structures might be the engine driving even our most advanced high-level, intelligent learning abilities," he said.

The cortex--the "thinking" part of the brain--is highly developed in humans. This is especially true for the prefrontal cortex. Common wisdom suggests that when we learn new things, the prefrontal cortex figures things out first. Then, as our behaviors become familiar and habitual, the more primitive, subcortical basal ganglia take over so that the now-familiar routines can be run off automatically and occupy less of our thoughts.

"What we found was evidence for something very different," Pasupathy said. "We found that as monkeys learn new, simple rules--associations analogous to 'stop at red, go at green'--the striatum of the basal ganglia shows evidence of learning much sooner and faster than the prefrontal cortex. But, an interesting wrinkle is that the the monkeys' behavior improved at a slow rate, similar to that of the slower changes inprefrontal cortex."

This suggests that while the basal ganglia "learn" first, their output forces the prefrontal cortex to change, albeit at a slower rate.

The researchers speculate that perhaps the faster learning in the basal ganglia allows us (and our primitive ancestors who lacked a prefrontal cortex) to quickly pick up important information needed for survival. The prefrontal cortex then monitors what the basal ganglia have learned. Its slower, more deliberate learning mechanisms allow it to gather a more judicious "big picture" of what is going on by taking into account more history and thereby exert executive control over behavior, Miller said.

This work was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the Tourette's Syndrome Association.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2, 2005 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 49, Number 19).


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. "Primitive Brain Is 'Smarter' Than We Think, MIT Study Shows." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 March 2005. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/03/050308134448.htm>.
Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. (2005, March 14). Primitive Brain Is 'Smarter' Than We Think, MIT Study Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 1, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/03/050308134448.htm
Massachusetts Institute Of Technology. "Primitive Brain Is 'Smarter' Than We Think, MIT Study Shows." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/03/050308134448.htm (accessed October 1, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Pregnancy Spacing Could Have Big Impact On Autism Risks

Pregnancy Spacing Could Have Big Impact On Autism Risks

Newsy (Oct. 1, 2014) A new study says children born less than one year and more than five years after a sibling can have an increased risk for autism. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Stopping School Violence

Stopping School Violence

Ivanhoe (Oct. 1, 2014) A trauma doctor steps out of the hospital and into the classroom to teach kids how to calmly solve conflicts, avoiding a trip to the ER. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com
Pineal Cysts: Debilitating Pain

Pineal Cysts: Debilitating Pain

Ivanhoe (Oct. 1, 2014) A tiny cyst in the brain that can cause debilitating symptoms like chronic headaches and insomnia, and the doctor who performs the delicate surgery to remove them. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com
Burning Away Brain Tumors

Burning Away Brain Tumors

Ivanhoe (Oct. 1, 2014) Doctors are 'cooking' brain tumors. Hear how this new laser-heat procedure cuts down on recovery time. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins