TAU researchers: Not only practice makes perfect

The participants’ performance rate was measured and compared to that of control subjects who had undergone a standard training protocol.

Tel Aviv University (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Tel Aviv University
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
If you think that repeated practice and training are the only way to get things down pat, think again: There is an alternative to practice makes perfect.
Brief reactivations of visual memories are enough to complete a full learning curve, Tel Aviv University researchers led by Dr. Nitzan Censor of the School of Psychological Sciences and his students Rony Laor-Maayany and Rotem Amar-Halpert found.
Publishing their study in Nature Neuroscience, the team found that “instead of bombarding our brains with repeated practice and training, people can utilize our new framework and improve learning with only several brief but highly efficient reactivations of a learned memory. In our study, instead of repeating a computer-based visual recognition task hundreds of times, participants were briefly exposed to just five trials – each lasting only a few milliseconds.
“Our results can facilitate the development of strategies geared to substantially reduce the amount of practice needed for efficient learning, both in the healthy brain and in the case of neurological damage or disease,” they said.
In procedural learning, individuals repeat a complex activity over and over again until all relevant neural systems work together to automatically produce the activity. It is essential for the development of any motor skill or cognitive activity.
The researchers suggested that brief periods of memory reactivation could be sufficient to improve basic visual perception and yield a full normal learning curve, supporting a new paradigm of human learning dynamics. They based their hypothesis on knowledge accumulated from studies in animal models.
For the study, 70 participants performed a computer-based visual discrimination task, in which visual stimuli flashed on a screen for several milliseconds. Afterward, participants were required to learn to discriminate between features within a visual stimulus (for example to report whether the orientation of lines was vertical or horizontal).
Such discrimination performance constitutes a common measure of human visual perception. The results revealed that subjects who underwent exposure of several seconds to a learned task later demonstrated the completion of an entire learning curve.
“After we conducted this basic and common visual discrimination task, participants returned for a session in which the visual memory was briefly reactivated and the task performed for only several seconds,” said Censor. “A memory of the task was created and encoded in the participants’ brains as they performed the task.”
The subjects then participated in three additional sessions spread over three days, in which the memory of the initial visual task was briefly reactivated five times, the visual stimuli flashing for several milliseconds.
On a separate day, the participants’ performance rate was measured and compared to that of control subjects who had undergone a standard training protocol.
“Additional control experiments were carried out,” said Censor.
“These all suggested that we can leverage a new form of learning – reactivation-induced learning.
Accordingly, brief ‘ignitions’ of the memory are sufficient to activate and improve the memory network encoded in our brains.