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How Does Your Brain Learn Through Trial and Error?

Problem-solving and critical thinking can rewire the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).

Paul Wicks/Wickemedia Commons
Orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in green.
Source: Paul Wicks/Wickemedia Commons

In a groundbreaking discovery, neurocientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have captured brain images of active learning in real-time by photographing the brains of mice as they learn how-to problem solve through trial and error.

Using advanced microscopy techniques, the researchers made time-lapse movies that illustrate how a mouse actively learns a new strategy for finding hidden treats during a foraging task. The films show dramatic resculpting in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) region of the frontal lobes within the cerebrum.

The March 2016 study, “Rule Learning Enhances Structural Plasticity of Long Range Axons in Frontal Cortex,” was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Although this is an animal study, the researchers believe these findings provide compelling evidence that supports the benefits of "active learning” in schools and workplaces. Active learning is an educational approach that advances critical thinking and problem-solving by doing an activity while simultaneously thinking about the task at hand. The objective of active learning is to optimize cerebral (of, or pertaining to the cerebrum) thinking and intellectual capabilities by doing an activity.

In a press release, senior author Linda Wilbrecht, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and founder of the Wilbrecht Lab said,

"We are excited because these are the first pictures of live rewiring in the brain at the synaptic level that capture a trace of this higher-order form of learning. Visual evidence has been lacking for the more complex, cognitive, strategy-based trial-and-error learning that helps us grow each day at school and at work.

These data push us towards greater recognition of how multiple dimensions of learning, particularly active learning, may be sculpting our brains. We know rules are in there somewhere, and we wanted to get a glimpse of how they might be established and stored in the neural wiring."

Wilbrecht and study lead author, Carolyn Johnson, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, investigated how rules—defined as "learned relationships between cues, actions and outcomes"—are encoded in the brain through trial and error.

For this study, the researchers focused on the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) partially because the brain region has long been associated with adhering to rules that are learned and reinforced through trial and error.

Life Science Databases/Wikimedia Commons
In 1848, Phineas Gage suffered an accident in which an iron rod pierced through his OFC. He lived until 1860 but his personality was dramatically altered.
Source: Life Science Databases/Wikimedia Commons

One of the most famous historic cases in neuroscience involves Phineas Gage and his OFC. Gage was an American railroad construction foreman who lived through an accident in which an iron rod pierced directly through his frontal lobes.

Before his brain injuries, Gage was known to be a congenial and polite man who lived by the rules of society. After his accident, Gage became an uninhibited, and often temperamental, nonconformist who paid little regard to the rules of society. He lived for twelve years after the iron-rod incident but his personality was so altered that his friends and family referred to him as "no longer Gage".

Active Learning, Emotional Regulation, and Achieving Goals

When I read these new discoveries about the orbitofrontal cortex this morning, the first thing that sprung to mind was how these findings correlate to other recent studies on the OFC that I’ve written about in previous Psychology Today blog posts.

For example, in January 2016, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post “Your Brain Can Be Trained to Self-Regulate Negative Thinking,” that included reference to a study, “Significant Gray Matter Changes in a Region of the Orbitofrontal Cortex in Healthy Participants Predicts Emotional Dysregulation." This study reported that reduced gray matter brain volume of the OFC was associated with difficulty regulating emotions.

On the flip side, in September 2015, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, "Optimism and Anxiety Change the Structure of Your Brain," based on research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign which found that adults who have a larger orbitofrontal cortex tend to have less anxiety and are more optimistic.

Taken together, one could make an educated guess that self-regulating your emotions requires active learning along with trial and error as you reinforce an explanatory style that creates a target mindset by sculpting and rewiring your OFC. As an ultra-endurance athlete, I spent decades mastering the ability to problem-solve during long distance races in ways that kept my cerebral mind in an optimistic state by learning how to self-regulate my emotions while navigating my way to the finish line.

Like every athlete, I also needed to learn the rules of the game and understand sportsmanlike conduct through "cues, actions, and outcomes" necessary to guide one's actions in the pursuit of an athletic goal. The latest research pinpoints the OFC as being a central player in the process of achieving goals by sculpting and rewiring your frontal cortex through neuroplasticity during active learning both on-and-off the court.

Parallels Between OFC Plasticity in Mice and Men

For the most recent UC Berkeley study, the researchers tracked daily changes in the synapses of the orbital frontal cortices of mice as they learned new rules. In this experiment, the mice explored their environments while using various strategies to find Cheerios that were hidden in bowls of wood shavings scented with either licorice, clove, thyme or fruit. The researchers changed the rules for how the mouse could find the treasure trove of Cheerios on a daily basis.

For example, on the first day of the experiment, the mice learned that the scent of licorice would lead them to a Cheerio hidden at the bottom of a bowl, but the mouse received no other clues. "They had to discover the rule that led them to a Cheerio using trial and error," Wilbrecht said.

Mice carried out the foraging tasks in the morning, and had their brain changes recorded in the afternoon. Using a technology known as 2-photon laser scanning microscopy, the researchers took pictures of the growth and pruning in the brain circuitry of long-range axons. These axons are conduits for electrical signals that connect neurons in the frontal lobes. The time-lapse video below shows these brain changes in action:

Interestingly, mice who received Cheerios freely without having to navigate, learn new rules, and hunt them down showed no uptick in brain circuit remodeling. Conversely, the mice who figured out the new rules on a daily basis showed dramatic changes in the wiring that broadcasts information from the orbitofrontal cortex. Again, it's fascinating that the act of "hunting and gathering" a Cheerio played a fundamental role in optimizing the functional connectivity of the frontal lobes.

Conclusion: Active Learning Thrives on Trial-and-Error Problem Solving

As educators and policymakers, one take away from this new study is the importance of implementing active problem-solving and critical thinking into the learning process for people of all ages. Although this was an animal study, the findings have human implications for the brain benefits of active learning.

In a press release, Wilbrecht concludes, "Importantly, these changes scaled with each animal's trial-and-error strategy and experience, suggesting they reflect each animal's intellectual growth." Although it's still an educated guess, the odds are that similar types of trial-and-error strategies and life experiences can stimulate a human's intellectual growth by rewiring and sculpting his or her frontal cortex.

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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