June 17, 2015

How the Brain Learns to Distinguish Between What Is Important and What Is not

(June 17, 2015)  Traffic lights, neon-lit advertisements, a jungle of road signs. When learning to drive, it is often very difficult to distinguish between important and irrelevant information. How the brain learns the importance of certain images over others is being investigated by Prof. Sonja Hofer at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel. In a recently published study in “Neuron”, the neuroscientist and her team show that learning the relevance of images considerably modifies neuronal networks in the brain. These changes might help our brain to process and classify the overload of stimuli in our environment more effectively.

How we perceive our environment greatly depends on what we have previously seen and learnt. For example, expert drivers do not need to think twice about the meaning of different road signs and are experienced in assessing traffic situations. They can filter out relevant information from a flood of other irrelevant stimuli and thus react quickly. In contrast, beginners need much longer to process the new information. Prof. Sonja Hofer’s team at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel and University College London addressed the question of how processing of sensory stimuli is optimized in the brain through learning.

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