by Jennifer Toes, Press Office Assistant at the British Science Festival 2013
This afternoon the British Science Festival was illuminated by four cognitive neuroscientists discussing their research into brain plasticity and its role in our ability to learn. Brain plasticity refers to the concept that the brain can change and remap itself over the course of our lives through learning new skills and experiencing new things.
During her short introduction, Dr Antonia Hamilton gave us a few examples of how our brain adapts through observational and physical learning. For example, the difference between a new born baby and a one year old infant is rather stark, and perfectly demonstrates how our brains learn to do new activities (sit up, roll over, crawl) even from a very early age.
Neuroscientist and dancer, Dr Emily Cross, uses her dual passions for each subject to study how complex actions (such as dancing or tying knots) are influenced by our perception of the world. Whilst participants in her study would hardly be dancing in Swan Lake any time soon, their ever-improving dance score in the video game “Dance Dance Revolution” (in dances they had practiced themselves and those observed in others) demonstrates how we learn by both passive observation and physical practice.
The role of sleep in learning and memory was explored by Dr Penny Lewis. She spoke of how our brain can consolidate memories in our sleep, which can drastically improve our ability to learn a task. Not only might this be of use to frantic students studying for an exam, but could also have implications in developing treatments to aid older people who can no longer reach the stage of sleep (Short wave sleep) needed for this sort of learning due to grey matter loss. Sleep seems to reinforce learning so that we might perform a task much better the next time we do it.
This brilliant talk was rounded off by Dr Mark Hasgrove who explained what the relevance of irrelevance is. Indeed, by showing the audience a video and asking them to focus on how many times people in white t-shirts passed the basketball between them, almost a third of the audience completely missed the presence of a man in a gorilla suit walking across the shot. This strange feat is due to our ability to focus and tune out the irrelevant information in our lives which is a crucial aspect of learning.
Drawing from several different areas of cognitive neuroscience, this talk illustrated how brain plasticity is vital to our everyday lives. Our perception of the world around us changes how we perform an action and this is vitally important in learning new things. Overall, it was a talk not to be missed (sorry, to those of you who didn’t attend!), and an interesting look into a field of science to keep your eye on for the future.