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The scientific brain: How the brain repurposes itself to learn scientific concepts

learning brain

The human brain was initially used for basic survival tasks, such as staying safe and hunting and gathering. Yet, 200,000 years later, the same human brain is able to learn abstract concepts, like momentum, energy, and gravity, which have only been formally defined in the last few centuries. New research has now uncovered how the brain is able to acquire brand new types of ideas.

Researchers used neural-decoding techniques developed at CMU to identify specific physics concepts that advanced students recalled when prompted. The brain activation patterns while thinking about the physics concepts indicated that all of the students’ brains used the ancient brain systems the same way, and the patterns revealed how the new knowledge was formed — by repurposing existing neural systems.

The findings could be used to improve science instruction.

“If science teachers know how the brain is going to encode a new science concept, then they can define and elaborate that concept in ways that match the encoding. They can teach to the brain by using the brain’s language,” said Mason, a senior research associate.

Researchers recruited nine advanced physics and engineering students to participate in the study. Each student’s brain was scanned at Carnegie Mellon’s University Scientific Imaging and Brain Research (SIBR) Center while they were shown a set of 30 familiar concepts, such as gravity, entropy, inertia, refraction, and velocity.

Using a machine learning program, the team was able to identify which of the 30 concepts a student was thinking about because the thought of each concept created its own brain activation pattern. They also could break down the patterns into the different neural pieces used to build the full concepts.

The research showed for the first time how learning physics concepts is accomplished by repurposing neural structures that were originally used for general everyday purposes. More specifically, the brain is able to learn physics concepts because of its ability to understand the four fundamental concepts of causal motion, periodicity, energy flow and algebraic (sentence-like) representations.

Brain systems that process rhythmic periodicity when hearing a horse gallop also support the understanding of wave concepts in physics. Similarly, understanding gravity involves visualizing causal motion, like an apple falling from a tree; energy flow uses the same system as sensing warmth from a fire or the sun, and understanding how one concept relates to others in an equation uses the same brain systems that are used to comprehend sentences describing quantities.

“This is why humans have been able to move ahead and innovate — because we can use our brain for new purposes,” Just said.

“Human brains haven’t changed much over a few thousand years, but new fields like aeronautics, genetics, medicine and computer science have been developed and continuously change. Our findings explain how the brain is able to learn and discover new types of concepts.”

Robert A. Mason, & Marcel Adam Just (2016). Neural Representations of Physics Concepts Psychological Science Other: Pre-print


10 responses

  1. Wow! This was so insightful. I absolutely enjoyed the read!


    April 13, 2016 at 1:05 am

  2. It is very interesting how we can alter the way that we use our brain. It is like epigenetics and how we are able to turn certain genes on and off based upon experiences. We repurpose what we already have in order to better use it for the day’s needs. If “the brain is able to learn physics concepts because of its ability to understand the four fundamental concepts of causal motion, periodicity, energy flow and algebraic (sentence-like) representations” then we are also able to use the genes within us to be able to survive different circumstances that may not be exactly what they were intended to help us with. The human body always seems to find new ways to use what is already existent within itself.


    April 13, 2016 at 11:44 am

    • I agree, but personally I think that evolution is lazy, and of course it doesn’t always fit the situation the way you would want. I am looking forward to the day that I am being able to play around with my biology for this reason and because it would be fun.


      April 13, 2016 at 12:07 pm

  3. Alex

    Our brains are incredible. Brain elasticity and neural connections make so much possible, especially since we are living in an always changing environment. Our brain can adapt and understand as our world does thanks to its intricate design.


    April 15, 2016 at 7:17 am

    • Agreed, funny enough, that is the problem with neuroscience though, the brain is so complex we can’t easily figure it out. If only it came with a owners manual.


      April 16, 2016 at 11:27 am

  4. Amy

    Great read! I thoroughly enjoy your description of the human brain being slowly shaped over time to do more “century specific functional” skills. This may very culture to culture. For example, I need to know how to skin a bear for meat just about as much as I need my appendix. However, other cultures may place more emphasis on the skinning of a bear.

    I wonder if this slow evolution of the brain becoming more analytical has anything to do with assortative mating styles? I am sure you are aware of the correlations of IQ scores and genetics as described by research from Plomin, DeFries, McClearn, & McGuffin in 2001. So this then leads me to the idea the our mating patterns of finding a “like mate” may have some effect on this brain evolution. One could also argue that you are talking quite a bit about the Flynn Effect and that you are creating the hypothesis of technology possibly causing this evolution. Lots to ponder, thank you for this insightful blog!


    April 15, 2016 at 8:49 pm

    • Thank you for the awesome comment! I always appreciate getting other peoples take on studies. The connection you made to the Flynn effect. Personally, I would be suspect if technology wasn’t having an effect on the evolution of our brain.

      I think your idea that we seek out other intelligent people for a mate could very well be true. Although, if I recall correctly, the Russians tried for lack of a better phrase breeding their best and brightest in a eugenics experiment to produce smarter children.

      They abandoned it (for probably pretty obvious reasons), but they came to the conclusion that parental intelligence wasn’t a predictor for a child’s intelligence. I would link to it, but I don’t remember what it was called.

      Anyway, I’m taking too much, brevity isn’t my strongest trait. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!


      April 16, 2016 at 11:42 am

  5. KMC

    Great read! I think the brain is an incredible thing! Epigenetics came to mind when reading this post since we learn to altar our brain, it is kind of the same thing in epigenetics where we can turn a gene on or off.


    April 27, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    • I agree and personally I think epigenetics is going to lead to all sorts of fun stuff.


      April 29, 2016 at 12:09 pm

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