2. Primitive Brain is Smarter

Primitive structures deep within the brain may have a far greater role in our high-level everyday thinking processes than previously believed, report researchers at the MIT Picower Center for Learning and Memory in the Feb. 24 issue of Nature.

The results of this study led by Earl K. Miller, associate director of the Picower Center at MIT, have implications about how we learn. The new knowledge also may lead to better understanding and treatment for autism and schizophrenia, which could result from an imbalance between primitive and more advanced brain systems.

Our brains have evolved a fast, reliable way to learn rules such as "stop at red" and "go at green." Dogma has it that the "big boss" lobes of the cerebral cortex, responsible for daily and long-term decision-making, learn the rules first and then transfer the knowledge to the more primitive, large forebrain region known as the basal ganglia, buried under the cortex.

Although both regions are known to be involved in learning rules that become automatic enough for us to follow without much thought, no one had ever determined each one's specific role.

In this study, Miller, who is the Picower Professor of Neuroscience, and postdoctoral associate Anitha Pasupathy found that in monkeys, the striatum (the input structure of the basal ganglia) showed more rapid change in the learning process than the more highly evolved prefrontal cortex. Their results suggest that the basal ganglia first identify the rule, and then "train" the prefrontal cortex, which absorbs the lesson more slowly.  

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