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Brain research shows past experience is invaluable for complex decision making
Date:5/13/2009

Researchers funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) have shown that past experience really does help when we have to make complex decisions based on uncertain or confusing information. They show that learning from experience actually changes the circuitry in our brains so that we can quickly categorise what we are seeing and make a decision or carry out appropriate actions. The research is published today (13 May) in Neuron.

Lead researcher, Dr Zoe Kourtzi from the University of Birmingham, said: "What we have found is that learning from past experience actually rewires our brains so that we can categorise the things we are looking at, and respond appropriately to them in any context.

In selecting a course of action that is most likely to be successful, the brain has to interpret and assign meaning to inherently uncertain sensory information - being able to do this is vital for our survival! This ability is especially critical when we are responding and acting in relation to visual stimuli that are highly similar to each other. For example, this is what is happening when you are trying to recognise friends in a crowd or discern a tumour from healthy tissue on a medical scan.

"We have shown that this learning process is not just a matter of learning the structure of the physical world when I look at something I'm not just playing a game of 'snap' in my head where I try to match images to each other. In fact, areas in our brains are actually trained to learn the rules that determine the way we interpret sensory information.''

Dr Kourtzi and colleagues wanted to find out about the human brain mechanisms that mediate flexible decision making through learning, which have so far not been well understood, despite it being fairly clear that successful decisions benefit from previous experience. They combined measurements of behaviour and brain signals to study how volunteers learned to
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Contact: Tracey Jewitt
tracey.jewitt@bbsrc.ac.uk
44-179-341-4694
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Source:Eurekalert

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