New Civilization News: Brain study    
 Brain study
31 Oct 2001 @ 17:46, by sindy

Study shows brain can learn without really trying

By Patricia Wen, Globe Staff, 10/30/2001

oach potatoes who aspire to intellectual greatness may have some hope: A new study shows a person can focus on one thing - say TV - and soak up other information on the side without even trying.

Whether they can pick up something as complex as Shakespeare or a foreign language awaits more study. Still, a Boston University researcher this week found that people absorb information in their peripheral vision - they can even acquire a low-level skill - while focused entirely on something else.

The findings, which appeared in Nature magazine this week, go further than previous research in showing just what the human brain can learn without consciously trying.

''Even when our mind is not paying attention to extraneous information, it ends up processing it,'' said Takeo Watanabe, a researcher in the Boston University psychology department.

In his study, 72 young adults, ranging in age from 19 to 25, were asked to look at a computer and identify letters that flashed rapidly across the screen. Next to half of the participants sat a separate screen, displaying gray dots, much like the visual snow on a television set with bad reception. Unbeknownst to the subjects, 5 percent of the gray dots were moving in the same direction, a pattern that was barely discernable to the naked eye.

Later, both groups were tested on their ability to look at a television screen and detect any pattern of moving dots. The group that only had one screen within their field of vision could not detect moving dots, even when 10 percent marched in the same direction. But everyone in the group who had been exposed to the peripheral screen of moving dots had an enhanced ability to detect a pattern.

''It means they learned something without being conscious of it,'' Watanabe said.

Only further study will show, however, if the subliminal learning came at a cost to the main task, answering questions such as: If a teenager writes a book report while peripherally seeing French vocabulary words, will the quality of his or her paper suffer?

Researchers in the field say that's a key question, one that will help ordinary people figure out whether they should seek out - or avoid - a split-screen learning environment.

''Is there a cost to this?'' said Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard University. ''You'd think there would be, but it's hard to guess this one.''

Past work in the area of subliminal or implicit learning focused on what the brain picked up without trying to, though the extraneous information usually related to the main task.

Examples of this include a driver knowing just what song will play next on the car's tape player, not because of a conscious attempt to learn the order but because they just heard the sequence so many times, said Marcel Just, codirector of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Watanabe said he hopes to learn more about just what kinds of skills can be picked up in a subliminal way, and if they can enter the brain through other channels, such as listening.

Regardless of the future role of implicit learning, Watanabe said this kind of learning has long helped the human species survive. He said, for instance, that someone could walk down a street while talking to a friend and implicitly pick up that cars are driving in a particular direction. While paying attention only to the conversation, part of the brain is ''sensitized'' to the direction of the cars to avoid an accident, he said.

''Without that knowledge, we'd be in much more danger,'' he said.

Patricia Wen can be reached by

e-mail at

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 10/30/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.


Scientists crack cyborg formula

Neural chip made from silicon and snails...

Scientists are heralding the dawn of the cyborg age with the arrival of the first neural chip.

Physics World magazine reports on the design which scientist believe will enable the chip to be implanted inside the human body to perform such tasks as mending damaged spinal chords or impaired eyesight.

According to reports on the BBC, the chip has been made out of a combination of silicon and organic matter obtained from snails.

For related news, see:
Middle managers replaced by robots by 2051
Wearable technology: Computing power on and in us
AI - it's been a long, long time coming

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