Study reveals how learning by observation works

The research recorded the activity of individual neurons with the goal of discovering how the human brain processes learning by observation

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have analyzed individual neurons responsible for processing learning by observation in a study published in the journal Nature Communications.

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This research, conducted by a team of neuroscientists at UCLA and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), recorded the activity of individual neurons with the goal of discovering how the human brain processes learning by observation.

According to the director of the study, Michael Hill, they managed to “overcome different levels of neuroscience, starting with the most abstract level of computational models, which we find reflected in the activity of individual neurons, through human behavior to human interaction.”

Monitored neuronal activity

In the test, experts recorded the activity of individual neurons through electrodes implanted in the brain often patients who suffer from epilepsy while playing cards.

During the game, the information recorded by the electrodes reflected the change in neuronal behavior, based on what the patients learned by observing the other players.

When the subjects observed the behavior of the other players, the individual neurons of their brains encoded a complex learning language originally developed in the fields of artificial intelligence and automatic learning.

“It’s amazing to see the neurons inside the human brain performing these complex calculations from the tests and mistakes of other people,” said Hill.

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When another person picked up a letter, the activity of the neurons had already predicted the most likely outcome, based on the results of previous tests. After the result was revealed, the same neurons coded the divergence between the result and its original prognosis.

The combination of these parameters can be used by the brain to learn from other people’s experiences and their mistakes, in order to adjust their behavior accordingly.

Envious neuroses

During the research, Hill and his colleagues also discovered the behavior of so-called “schadenfreude” neurons. When we play with others, as in the case of cards, we experience pleasure when we win, but we also feel the “schadenfreude”, a German word that means pleasure derived from the failure of others.

According to the results of the study, when the subject in question won and the other players lost, the activity of this type of neuron increased, and when the subject lost or other players won, that activity descended.

“Obviously, we do not know what exactly these neurons encode, yet it is fascinating to see something like the ‘schadenfreude’ reflected in the activity of individual neurons in the human brain,” added the neuroscientist.

The scientific community had already discovered the existence of three main areas of the brain involved in social learning, the amygdala, the medial prefrontal crust, and the anterior cingulate crust.

However, said the study’s director, this time “the two types of responses were found in the area of the brain called the anterior cingulate crust, not the other two parts in which we also recorded data.”

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