Learning from our past or through our past, a new study found, is actually a natural neurological process. Researchers from the University of Texas found that the brain associates new information with memories or past experiences when it is learning something. This memory association facet of learning can make it easier for a person to have a better understanding of new concepts and help in making better decisions.
Alison Preston, assistant professor of psychology and neurobiology, says their findings have significance in improving teaching methods as well as approaches to caring for patients with degenerative neurological disorders. “Memories are not just for reflecting on the past; they help us make the best decisions for the future,” adds Preston. “Here, we provide a direct link between these derived memories and the ability to make novel inferences.”
The researchers presented a series of paired images to 34 study participants. In different presentations, an image would be paired with closely related elements, i.e. a backpack paired with a horse in one presentation would be paired with the image of a field in another presentation, and the backpack would be associated with the viewer to the horse and the field. The object and outdoor scenery pair of images would reappear in subsequent presentations.
While viewing the different presentations, the participants’ brain activities were monitored using an fMRI. The researchers studied how the participants associated images that did not appear together, i.e. the horse and field, when shown the overlapping image, i.e. the backpack and horse or the backpack and field. For example, the researchers found that when participants were shown the image pair of the backpack and the field, they remembered the past image of the horse as well, making an association between the horse and the field.
Using a real-world scenario to illustrate the results of the experiment, Preston describes a person seeing a Great Dane being walked by a new neighbor down the street. The person then sees the same Great Dane being walked by a woman in the park on a different day. The person seeing the woman and the dog would then remember also seeing the dog being walked by the new neighbor and the person would make an association between the two dog walkers and make the inference that, even though he has never seen the woman before, she is also a new neighbor.
Preston adds, “By combining past events with new information, we’re able to derive new knowledge and better anticipate what to expect in the future.”