The irony of the human brain is that we use it to better understand the world around us, but when it comes to the innermost workings of our most intricate organ, we’re clueless. A group of scientists may have brought us closer to understanding how we think with a study, which suggests rapid learning is actually the product of brain wave synchronization.
While studying the thought process of monkeys, a team of neuroscientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) observed that two areas of the brain were involved in the monkeys’ ability to categorize different pattern of dots. The two brain areas, the prefrontal cortex and the striatum, work together to form new communication circuits. "We're seeing direct evidence for the interactions between these two systems during learning, which hasn't been seen before,” explained Earl Miller, senior author of the study, in a press release. Miller emphasized how the idea of rhythm-based functional circuits, such as those found in the monkeys, is a new concept in systems neuroscience.
Previous to this study, scientists understood that learning was made possible by the connections our brains form between our billions of neurons. The constant changing of the neuron’s connections, formation of new patterns, and strengthening of already existing patterns, allow the brain to "explore new ways of achieving the goal,” Medical News Today reported. When a new skill is needed, the brain’s neurons form a new circuit.
"Your brain is always trying to find the configurations that balance everything so you can do two tasks, or three tasks, or however many you're learning. There are many ways to solve a task, and you're exploring all the different ways," Robert Ajemian, a research scientist at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, told Medical News Today. Although previous studies have shown that thinking involved increased synchrony between the frontal and visual cortex, according to the press release, Miller’s study is the first to show specific patterns of how synchrony linked to specific thoughts.
Miller knows that a brain’s plasticity, or the ability to create new neuron connections, can only go so far. "If you can change your thoughts from moment to moment, you can't be doing it by constantly making new connections and breaking them apart in your brain. Plasticity doesn't happen on that kind of time scale," Miller explained. He hypothesizes synchronized brain waves enable our brains to create new circuits at the moment we are having a thought and then dissolve moments later when we change our minds. "That's how you get the open-ended nature of human thought. You keep expanding your knowledge," Miller explained.
Researchers hope to continue their investigation into how the brain processes thoughts by understanding more on how the brain responds to abstract categories.
Source: Antzoulatos EG, Miller EK. Differences between Neural Activity in Prefrontal Cortex and Striatum during Learning of Novel Abstract Categories. Neuron. 2014.