Post-Doctoral Research Associate Dr Kelly Diederen has published a paper in the leading neuroscience journal Neuron.
The article, Adaptive Prediction Error Coding in the Human Midbrain and Striatum Facilitates Behavioural Adaptation and Learning Efficiency, builds on the long recognised notion that we learn from our mistakes. This recent study shows that we are very sensitive to just how variable the outcomes of our choices may be and that we can adjust our learning practices in the light of this. The study also identified brain regions that are associated with this subtle adjustment in our tendency to learn under different environmental conditions.
Kelly explained “Every day we make many decisions: where to go for lunch or which road to take home to avoid traffic. In order to pick the best, we have to learn what to expect from each option. Learning what to expect is difficult since the outcomes of our choices tend to vary from time to time. The quality of lunch served in a restaurant may for example vary slightly from day to day depending on the freshness of the ingredients. However, a big change in food quality could result from the restaurant having hired a new chef. Therefore, we need to learn what kind of variability is small enough to ignore in order that we may notice when the food in a café suddenly becomes unacceptably bad or exceptionally good. In other words, we need to be able to update our predictions when the outcome changes much more than expected”.
Kelly and her team were able to show that healthy people can put the brakes on learning as the variability becomes greater, that two regions in the brain (the midbrain and ventral striatum) were sensitive to how variable the rewards were and they observed that people who were more sensitive to reward variability showed better learning on our task, suggesting that individual differences in such sensitivity might distinguish ‘good’ from ‘poorer’ learners.
To read the full results of the study, visit this link http://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(16)30078-2.