Learning by doing: not necessarily through thought processes

A new study shows that humans use the primitive ability of ‚habit learning‘

(pte/he.vt-San Diego) – A new study on cognitive ability shows that humans can learn skills without knowing what they have done or how they have done it, much like the way primates do.

The results of the study, led by neuroscientist Larry Squire University of California, San Diego, are surprising because scientists had thought that humans learn through the process of ‚declarative‘ learning, whereby the act of learning is remembered, as well as the new skill or knowledge itself.

Declarative learning comes from a brain region called the medial temporal lobe, which is thought to coordinate the storage of memories in the brain.

Squire and colleagues studied two people with severe damage to this region, who suffered from permanent amnesia. The two volunteers had to identify correct items in eight pairs. Both patients did not remember the tasks at the beginning of each session, but were able to master the tasks over a period of several weeks using the ‚habit method‘.

The absence of conscious memory in this study, published in Nature http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v436/n7050/abs/nature03857.html , and the subsequent results was surprising, says Squire. „We thought it unlikely that such successful habit learning would be revealed, because we expected that performance would be dominated by efforts to engage in declarative memory,“ he says.

The scientists are still unclear about how habit-learning functions exactly affects humans but Squire believes that it plays a fundamental role in shaping healthy minds as well as those with memory disorders.

„Here arise our preferences, dispositions, skills and myriad ways of interacting with the world,“ he says.