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How Brain’s Expectations Affect Learning

When we are learning something new, our brains are continually making predictions about our environment, then registering whether those assumptions are true.

A new study has found that our expectations during these predictions affects the activity of various brain networks.

Neuroscientists at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany recently reported their findings in two articles in the journals Cerebral Cortex and Journal of Neuroscience.

The neuroscientists say they identified two key regions in the brain involved in this process. The thalamus plays a central role in decision-making. The insular cortex, on the other hand, is particularly active when it is clear whether the right or wrong decision has been made.

“The expectation during learning then regulates specific connections in the brain and thus the prediction for learning-relevant sensory perception,” said Associate Professor Dr. Burkhard Pleger from the Neurological Clinic of Berufsgenossenschaftliches Universitätsklinikum Bergmannsheil.

For their study, the researchers used a learning task that focuses on the decision-making process during the perception of skin contact in the brain.

“It’s like learning a computer strategy game using a game pad, which gives sensory feedback to certain fingers on certain stimuli,” explained Pleger. “The point is that a certain touch stimulus leads to success and that this has to be learned from stimulation to stimulation.”

For the experiment, 28 participants were given either tactile stimulus A or B on the index finger in each trial run. At the push of a button, they then had to predict whether the subsequent tactile stimulus would be the same or not. The probability of A and B was constantly changing, which the participant had to learn from prediction to prediction, the researchers said.

During the test, the participants’ brain activity was examined using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The researchers said they were particularly interested in the trial runs in which the participants changed their decision-making strategy. They then asked the question to what extent the change in expectations influenced brain activity.

To the researchers, two brain regions stood out: the thalamus and the insular cortex.

The thalamus processes information that comes from the sensory organs or other areas of the brain and passes it on to the cerebrum. It is also called the gateway to consciousness, according to the neuroscientists.

Using functional magnetic resonance images, the researchers were able to show that different brain connections between the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus were responsible for maintaining a learning strategy or changing the strategy.

The higher the expectations before the decision, the sooner the strategy was maintained and the lower the strength of these connections, according to the study’s findings. With low expectations, there was a change of strategy and the regions seemed to interact much more strongly with each other.

“The brain appears to be particularly active when a learning strategy has to be changed while it takes significantly less energy to maintain a strategy,” Pleger noted.

“So far, the thalamus has been viewed as a switch. Our results underline its role in higher cognitive functions that help decision-making while learning. So the thalamus is not only a gateway to sensory consciousness, but rather it seems to link it to cognitive processes that serve, for example, to make decisions.”

The insular cortex, on the other hand, is involved in perception, motor control, self-confidence, cognitive functions, and interpersonal experiences. This part was particularly active when a participant had already made his decision and then found out whether he was right or wrong, according to the study’s findings.

“Different networks that are anchored in the insular cortex are regulated by expectations and thus seem to have a direct influence on future sensory perception,” said Pleger.

Source: Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Photo: Burkhard Pleger (left) and Bin Wang collaborated for the studies. Credit: RUB, Marquard.

How Brain’s Expectations Affect Learning

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2020). How Brain’s Expectations Affect Learning. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 18 Apr 2020 (Originally: 18 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 18 Apr 2020
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