The brain learns while the mind wanders

A new Finnish study shows that the formation of a new association can almost completely be prevented by disturbing the learner at a specific state outside the training situation itself.

The process of learning goes beyond the active effort of rehearsing the material to be learned. The brain also ‘fixes’ memory traces during short periods of lack of attention.  Short bursts of high frequency oscillation, called ripples, are especially present during sleep and it is generally considered that during these ripples the recently encoded material is transferred into long term memory.

Of course, consolidation takes place during waking state too; otherwise in the evening we would not remember what happened in the morning. Ripples do occur in a mammalian brain when the animal (or human) is not paying attention to the surroundings. In a study conducted by Jan Wikgren’s research group, rabbits were trained in a hippocampus-dependent classical conditioning task.  Conditioning consists of paired presentations of a tone followed by a mild puff of air towards the eye which are presented at 20 - 40 second intervals. As the task is not a natural one to the animal, it usually takes about 200 repetitions before it learns to avoid the puff of air by blinking when hearing the tone.

Read the full story at the University of Jyväskylä website

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