Hollywood science fiction stories such as "The Matrix" and "Inception" have suggested how virtual worlds or dreams could manipulate human learning or create new memories. Now, a new experiment has shown how scientists could someday implant new skills or memories in the waking life — without people even being aware of what they're learning.
Traditional learning has always required conscious effort and practice — whether it's dribbling a basketball or playing the piano — so that the physical or mental practice translates into certain brain activities repeated again and again. But U.S. and Japanese researchers found that just repeating the related brain activity in the head can allow people to improve performance on certain skills.
"It can 'incept' a person to acquire new learning, skills or memory, or possibly to restore skills or knowledge that has been damaged through accident, disease or aging, without a person’s awareness of what is learned or memorized," according to the new study.
The researchers used fMRI brain scans to first identify patterns of brain activity related to seeing a visual shape oriented in three different directions. They then trained volunteers to activate brain-activity patterns related to one of the three shape orientations, but masked the learning behind an arbitrary task by asking the volunteers to try making a green disc appear bigger on a computer screen.
The size of the green disc was linked — without the volunteers knowing — to activating the correct brain- activity pattern. Volunteers were free to randomly try all sorts of different ways to concentrate their minds, such as remembering scenes from a famous animated film or simply trying to imagine a bigger green disc.
Once trained, the volunteers took a new series of tests aimed at consciously identifying the orientation of visual shapes. They performed better at visually identifying the orientations related to the brain-activity patterns that they had unconsciously learned.
"The most surprising thing in this study is that mere inductions of neural activation patterns corresponding to a specific visual feature led to visual performance improvement on the visual feature, without presenting the feature or subjects' awareness of what was to be learned," said Takeo Watanabe, a neuroscientist at Boston University.
The experiment has only worked for training the early visual cortex — a back part of the brain that recognizes patterns as well as moving and non-moving visual objects. But the 'fMRI neurofeedback method" developed in the study might eventually work for different types of memory skills, learning muscle movements for sports, or rehabilitation after a serious injury.
"In theory, hypnosis or a type of automated learning is a potential outcome," said Mitsuo Kawato, director of the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan. "However, in this study we confirmed the validity of our method only in visual perceptual learning. So we have to test if the method works in other types of learning in the future."
Kawato also cautioned that researchers must avoid using the method in an "unethical way." Presumably they're still OK with Neo learning kung fu or Trinity getting the pilot skills to fly a helicopter.
The study is detailed in the Dec. 9 issue of the journal Science.