Neuroimaging techniques are giving researchers a new view of how the brain works and learns.
Scientists have known that with practice and skill, many movements become automatic so that tasks like riding a bicycle or catching a ball can be performed without much attention or mental effort.
Emerging research provides evidence that the cerebellum, a part of the brain used to store memories for skilled movements, could also store memories important for mental skills — such as the rules used to interpret traffic light signals.
The prefrontal cortex, in the frontal lobe, uses problem-solving to establish the correct rules using attention, and the new research raises the possibility that the cerebellum then learns to implement them skilfully with little conscious attention, freeing the prefrontal cortex to direct attention to new problems.
The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, reported that brain imaging was used to scan volunteers during learning, and that in a part of the cerebellum known to be connected with the prefrontal cortex, activity changed from one practice trial to the next.
The rate of change was faster for rules that became automatic more quickly. After practice, volunteers used simple rules quickly and accurately even when attention drawn away by a “distractor” task performed at the same time.
Researcher Narender Ramnani, Ph.D., of the University of Royal Holloway in London, said: “The study adds to the groundwork for understanding cognitive deficits in patients with cerebellar damage and improving strategies for their rehabilitation. It also raises the possibility that the cerebellum might be used for the skillful, automatic and unconscious use of mathematical and grammatical rules.”