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Humming in Sync: How Our Brains Can Learn So Quickly

The human brains ability to quickly analyse and absorb new information is
remarkable.
Even something as apparently simple and well-practiced as reading these words
and understanding them requires an impressive feat of mental processing.
What is it, though, thats going on in the brain when we learn?
Professor Earl K. Miller, an MIT neuroscientist, outlines the problem:
If you can change your thoughts from moment to moment, you cant be doing it
by constantly making new connections and breaking them apart in your brain.
Plasticity doesnt happen on that kind of time scale.
Theres got to be some way of dynamically establishing circuits to correspond to
the thoughts were having in this moment, and then if we change our minds a
moment later, those circuits break apart somehow.
To examine whats happening when we learn something new, Millers research
has looked at connections between the prefrontal cortex (in blue above)
where our executive control system resides and the striatum (in red above),
which is involved in memory and habit formation.
Previous studies from Millers lab have shown that when learning whether
something is in a category or not, the striatum activates first, then the prefrontal
cortex.
The striatum learns very simple things really quickly, and then its output trains
the prefrontal cortex to gradually pick up on the bigger picture.
The striatum learns the pieces of the puzzle, and then the prefrontal cortex puts
the pieces of the puzzle together.
The question is how these two areas of the brain are working together.
In new research in Millers lab, they examined how the brains of monkeys
learned to categorise patterns of dots (Antzoulatos & Miller, 2014).
What the researchers saw was that, as the monkeys implicitly learned rules of
categorisation, the electrical activity in their brains shifted.
The brain produced beta waves in two areas of the brain the striatum and the
prefrontal cortex that were in sync with each other.
Miller likens it to a synchronised humming, albeit electrical rather than sound-
based:
There is some unknown mechanism that allows these resonance patterns to
form, and these circuits start humming together.
That humming may then foster subsequent long-term plasticity changes in the
brain, so real anatomical circuits can form. But the first thing that happens is
they start humming together.
This is the first time this has been seen:
Were seeing direct evidence for the interactions between these two systems
during learning, which hasnt been seen before.
Category-learning results in new functional circuits between these two areas, and
these functional circuits are rhythm-based, which is key because thats a
relatively new concept in systems neuroscience.