Using a deceptively simple set of experiments, researchers at Johns Hopkins have learned why people learn an identical or similar task faster the second, third and subsequent time around. The reason: They are aided not only by memories of how to perform the task, but also by memories of the errors made the first time.
"In learning a new motor task, there appear to be two processes happening at once," says Reza Shadmehr, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "One is the learning of the motor commands in the task, and the other is critiquing the learning, much the way a 'coach' behaves. Learning the next similar task goes faster, because the coach knows which errors are most worthy of attention. In effect, this second process leaves a memory of the errors that were experienced during the training, so the re-experience of those errors makes the learning go faster."
Shadmehr says scientists who study motor control how the brain pilots body movement have long known that as people perform a task, like opening a door, their brains note small differences between how they expected the door to move and how it actually moved, and they use this information to perform the task more smoothly next time. Those small differences are scientifically termed "prediction errors," and the process of learning from them is largely unconscious.
The surprise finding in the current study, described in Science Express on Aug. 14, is that not only do such errors train the brain to better perform a specific task, but they also teach it how to learn faster from errors, even when those errors are encountered in a completely different task. In this way, the brain can generalize from one task to another by keeping a memory of the errors.
To study errors and learning, Shadmehr's team put volunteers in front of a joystick that was under a screen. Volunteers couldn't s
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Johns Hopkins Medicine