Learning The Piano or Kung-Fu, Without Knowing How To Do Either


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It's finally here, science and technology used in both The Matrix and Total Recall is near reality. Say hello to Decoded Neurofeedback (DecNef), a study conducted by Boston University and ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan. What they've done is begun preliminary work towards allowing people to learn through visual stimulation, even when a task is unknown to a person before hand.

If you'd rather not read through the scientific jargon, you can watch this video (closed caption is recommended):

According to the study, the way we perceive what we see is gradually built up in our mind. When we look at a table, first we see nothing but lines, shapes, and motion, but as more advanced visual areas come into play we begin to see the table. In the early visual areas, researchers were trying to find out if learning and performance could be improved. According to their findings, it can.

BU neuroscientist Takeo Watanabe, said this of the research, "Some previous research confirmed a correlation between improving visual performance and changes in early visual areas, while other researchers found correlations in higher visual and decision areas", continuing, "However, none of these studies directly addressed the question of whether early visual areas are sufficiently plastic to cause visual perceptual learning."

To test their theory, they used "decoded fMRI neurofeedback", which induces a specific visual pattern in the subject. They used repetition of the pattern to see if performance could be enhanced for that specific visual feature. They discovered that it could improve tasks which require visual stimulation. They also discovered their method worked when the subject wasn't even aware of what they were learning. This is when it gets interesting.

"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", Watanabe explains.

"We found that subjects were not aware of what was to be learned while behavioral data obtained before and after the neurofeedback training showed that subjects' visual performance improved specifically for the target orientation, which was used in the neurofeedback training"

What this means in layman's terms, is this scene from the Matrix is becoming close to reality.

Mitsuo Kawato, director of ATR lab, added a key insight, "In theory, hypnosis or a type of automated learning is a potential outcome. 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. At the same time, we have to be careful so that this method is not used in an unethical way."

Yeah, no kidding. Potential subjects could end up like this.