Learn Like Neo
Want to learn to play piano but don’t have the patience to practice? Or maybe you always wanted to play baseball but just can’t seem to hit the ball. Now, imagine that you could learn instantaneously, without putting in any conscious effort.
Seems pretty farfetched right? Not quite. According to scientists at Boston University and the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, this may soon be possible with the help of brain technology.
The scientists found that by using decoded functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, they were able to get through to a person’s visual cortex and influence brain activity patterns. These patterns were changed to match a previously known state, which enabled the brain to improve its performance during certain visual tasks.
Feeling lost yet? Don’t worry; it’s fairly easy to understand once you get your head around the basic idea of how it works. Throughout the study the subject’s brain patterns were altered to match the brain patterns of someone who already knows how to do something, like play piano or hit a homerun.
This process can be likened to the popular 1999 movie “The Matrix,” where Neo is simply programmed to learn what he needs to know in a matter of minutes, from fast-paced martial arts techniques to in-depth knowledge into a range of obscure subjects.
This is just a movie you may be thinking, and of course, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to plug ourselves into a computer and upload information to our brains. However, brain technology provides us with a whole slew of new opportunities we previously would never have dreamed of.
Throughout the study, the process of learning was followed and documented. Takeo Watanabe, a neuroscientist and lead researcher, commented “Adult early visual areas are sufficiently plastic to cause visual perception learning.” Now, just to clarify, the term “plastic” does not refer to plastic as you might be picturing it.
What it is really referring to is the term neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to change and adapt with different situations. Watanabe’s quote can be explained as follows; when a person learns they gradually begin to build up and store pictures inside the brain. These pictures first begin to be documented in the brain as simple lines, shapes colors, edges and motions.
As time goes on, the brain becomes capable of filling these pictures in with more details, which allows you to have the full picture locked away in memory.
The scientists paid special attention to the early visual areas in the brain that influence visual performance and learning. Previous studies have already indicated that there may be a connection between improving visual performance and greater learning abilities.
However, this was the first study to examine whether or not these early visual areas are able to influence visual perceptual learning. The brain is a powerful machine, and by learning how to harness its power properly and use it to its full potential, you could find yourself capable of all kinds of things that you wouldn’t have previously imagined yourself capable of, kind of like Neo in The Matrix.
During the recent study, Kazuhisa Shibata, of the Boston University designed and tested his new method to aid learning. The method uses decoded fMRI feedback to activate certain patterns in the early visual areas of the brain that are brought on by certain visual features in a particular region of the brain.
The scientists studied how the activation pattern is caused, and whether or not repetitions could improve a particular visual feature.
The scientists believe, although the study is not conclusive, that this new form of learning will significantly improve people’s abilities when it comes to tasks that call for visual performance. This can include many things from playing musical instruments to becoming more adept at a certain sport, or even helping people with memory loss to recall certain memories that were previously lost to them.
Another interesting find that emerged from the study was the fact that this method of learning appears to work even when the subjects were unaware of what they were meant to be learning. Yes you read that correctly. You may soon be able to learn great new skills without even knowing it.
The researchers discovered that just inducing neural activation patterns that worked together with a particular visual feature allowed the subjects to improve their performance on that feature without even having been told what they were being taught and what visual feature they should be focusing on in order to improve their performance.
This idea was developed by Watanabe along with fellow researchers Mitsuo Kawato, who is the director at the ATR lab, and Yuka Sasaki, who works as a neuroscience assistant at a general hospital in Massachusetts.
Watanabe commented about this aspect of the study saying “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.”
Undoubtedly, movie scenarios where people are being programmed to do evil are quick to enter your mind when you think of this new unconscious learning method, and an aspect of this study that may cause some concern in your mind is how it could potentially be misused.
If you found yourself asking yourself this question you are not alone and the question has been raised on a number of occasions, even by the scientists themselves. On this subject, Kaweto commented “We have to be careful so that this method is not used in an unethical way.”
This new unconscious learning technique has naturally also sparked questions about whether or not hypnosis would be used together with brain technology as a way to improve learning in the future.
Cognitive hypnotherapy has been around for a while, although it has remained somewhat controversial due to the misconception that subjects who are placed under hypnosis would be easy to influence without their prior knowledge or consent.
Therapists who use hypnotherapy in their treatments maintain that this would not be possible, and that what they do is simply to help individuals to tap into their subconscious and come up with solutions on their own.
Cognitive hypnotherapy is already widely known as a way to help people manage the stress and anxiety in their lives, but the use of it as a learning method has not yet received a lot of attention.
There is one notable study on this subject however, were the Metropolitan Police Training School carried out a trial with a group of students who had been underperforming throughout the semester. The school is known for its intense training programs that often result in high failure and dropout rates.
Because of this, police trainers were interested to see if there was a way to improve their students’ performance.
Rebecca and Trevor Silvester came up with a training method that used hypnosis to help students learn faster and more efficiently. They found that after their students had received just two and a half hours of cognitive hypnotherapy and extra coaching from their teachers, they began to show up to 30% improvement on their test scores.
The researchers at Boston University admitted that hypnosis or a form of automated learning could possibly be one of the outcomes of their research, although they were currently simply focusing on visual perception learning. The method would still need to be tested on other types of learning to see if it would be as effective.
This type of brain technology is expected to be used for different types of learning, including improved memory, motor and rehabilitation skills. However, as anxious as you probably are to get started with this brain training, you will have to wait and see how the science will develop.
Image by El Bibliomata
Tagged cognitive psychotherapy