December 9, 2011
New research suggests it may be possible to learn high-performance
with little or no conscious effort
New research published today in the journal Science suggests it may
be possible to use brain technology to learn to play a piano, reduce
mental stress or hit a curve ball with little or no conscious
It's the kind of thing seen in
Hollywood's "Matrix" franchise:
Experiments conducted at Boston University (BU) and ATR
Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, recently
demonstrated that through a person's visual cortex, researchers
could use decoded functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to
induce brain activity patterns to match a previously known target
state and thereby improve performance on visual tasks.
Think of a person watching a computer screen and having his or her
brain patterns modified to match those of a high-performing athlete
or modified to recuperate from an accident or disease.
preliminary, researchers say such possibilities may exist in the
"Adult early visual areas are sufficiently plastic to cause visual
perceptual learning," said lead author and BU neuroscientist Takeo
Watanabe of the part of the brain analyzed in the study.
Neuroscientists have found that pictures gradually build up inside a
person's brain, appearing first as lines, edges, shapes, colors and
motion in early visual areas.
The brain then fills in greater detail
to make a red ball appear as a red ball, for example.
Researchers studied the early visual areas for their ability to
cause improvements in visual performance and learning.
"Some previous research confirmed a correlation between improving
visual performance and changes in early visual areas, while other
researchers found correlations in higher visual and decision areas,"
said Watanabe, director of BU's Visual Science Laboratory.
none of these studies directly addressed the question of whether
early visual areas are sufficiently plastic to cause visual
Boston University post-doctoral fellow Kazuhisa Shibata designed and
implemented a method using decoded fMRI
neurofeedback to induce a
particular activation pattern in targeted early visual areas that
corresponded to a pattern evoked by a specific visual feature in a
brain region of interest.
The researchers then tested whether
repetitions of the activation pattern caused visual performance
improvement on that visual feature.
The result, say researchers, is a novel learning approach sufficient
to cause long-lasting improvement in tasks that require visual
What's more, the approach worked even when test subjects were not
aware of what they were learning.
"The most surprising thing in this study is that mere inductions of
neural activation patterns corresponding to a specific visual
feature led to visual performance improvement on the visual feature,
without presenting the feature or subjects' awareness of what was to
be learned," said Watanabe, who developed the idea for the research
project along with Mitsuo Kawato, director of ATR lab and Yuka
Sasaki, an assistant in neuroscience at Massachusetts General
"We found that subjects were not aware of what was to be learned
while behavioral data obtained before and after the neurofeedback
training showed that subjects' visual performance improved
specifically for the target orientation, which was used in the
neurofeedback training," he said.
The finding brings up an inevitable question.
Is hypnosis or a type
of automated learning a potential outcome of the research?
"In theory, hypnosis or a type of automated learning is a potential
outcome," said Kawato.
"However, in this study we confirmed the
validity of our method only in visual perceptual learning. So we
have to test if the method works in other types of learning in the
future. At the same time, we have to be careful so that this method
is not used in an unethical way."
At present, the decoded neurofeedback method might be used for
various types of learning, including memory, motor and
Press Release from the National Science Foundation, the National
Institutes of Health and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports,
Science and Technology in Japan supported the research.