Study of the Day: Soon, You May Download New Skills to Your Brain

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New research suggests it may be possible to learn complex tasks with little to no conscious effort, just like in The Matrix. Whoa, indeed.

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PROBLEM: Unlike Neo in The Matrix or the titular superspy in the comedy series Chuck, we can't master kung fu just by beaming information to our brain. We have to put in time and effort to learn new skills.

METHODOLOGY: Researchers from Boston University and Japan's ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories designed a decoded functional MRI neurofeedback method that induces a pre-recorded activation pattern in targeted early visual brain areas that could also produce the pattern through regular learning. They then tested whether repetitions of the fMRI pattern caused an improvement in the performance of that visual feature.

RESULTS: The experiments successfully demonstrated that, through a person's visual cortex, decoded fMRI could be used to impart brain activity patterns that match a previously known target state. Interestingly, behavioral data obtained before and after the neurofeedback training showed improved performance of the relevant visual tasks especially when the subjects were unaware of the nature of what they were learning.

CONCLUSION: It may someday be possible to use brain technology to learn to play the piano, reduce mental stress, or even master kung fu with little or no conscious effort. Lead author and BU neuroscientist Takeo Watanabe says in a statement: "Adult early visual areas are sufficiently plastic to cause visual perceptual learning."

SOURCE: The full study, "Perceptual Learning Incepted by Decoded fMRI Neurofeedback Without Stimulus Presentation," is published in the journal Science.

Image: VLADGRIN/Shutterstock.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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