Study finds how brain learns from subconscious stimuli

Brussels [Belgium]: Researchers at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) uncovered for the first time what happens in animals’ brains when they learn from the subconscious, visual stimuli.
In time, this knowledge can lead to new treatments for a number of conditions. The study, a collaboration between KU Leuven, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard was published in Neuron.
An experienced birdwatcher recognises many more details in a bird’s plumage than the ordinary person. Thanks to extensive training, he or she can identify specific features in the plumage. This learning process is not only dependent on conscious processes. Previous research has shown that when people are rewarded during the presentation of visual stimuli that are not consciously perceivable, they can still perceive these stimuli afterwards.
Although this is a known phenomenon, researchers were unsure as to how exactly this unconscious perceptual learning comes about. To find out, Professor Wim Vanduffel and colleagues studied the brains of two rhesus monkeys before and after they were exposed to subconscious visual stimuli.
The researchers activated part of the reward system at the base of the brain stem, the ventral tegmental area. This includes cells that produce dopamine, a molecule that is also released when you receive a reward.
“Dopamine is a crucial messenger molecule of our motor and reward systems, and is extremely important for learning and enjoyment,” says Vanduffel. Activating the ventral tegmental area released dopamine, among other things. “By stimulating the brain area directly, we can causally link the activity in that area to perception or complex cognitive behaviour,” explains Vanduffel.
While the brain area was activated, the monkeys were shown virtually invisible images of human faces and bodies. Because the images were very blurry and the monkeys had to perform a very different and difficult task at the same time, they could not consciously perceive these images.
The same process was followed during the control tests, but the brain was not stimulated.
When the monkeys received subconscious visual stimuli while the ventral tegmental area was stimulated, they knew details about those images afterwards. For example, they knew whether the bodies shown were turned to the left or to the right. This was not the case when there had been no brain stimulation.Brussels [Belgium], March 16 (ANI): Researchers at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) uncovered for the first time what happens in animals’ brains when they learn from the subconscious, visual stimuli.
In time, this knowledge can lead to new treatments for a number of conditions. The study, a collaboration between KU Leuven, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard was published in Neuron.
An experienced birdwatcher recognises many more details in a bird’s plumage than the ordinary person. Thanks to extensive training, he or she can identify specific features in the plumage. This learning process is not only dependent on conscious processes. Previous research has shown that when people are rewarded during the presentation of visual stimuli that are not consciously perceivable, they can still perceive these stimuli afterwards.
Although this is a known phenomenon, researchers were unsure as to how exactly this unconscious perceptual learning comes about. To find out, Professor Wim Vanduffel and colleagues studied the brains of two rhesus monkeys before and after they were exposed to subconscious visual stimuli.
The researchers activated part of the reward system at the base of the brain stem, the ventral tegmental area. This includes cells that produce dopamine, a molecule that is also released when you receive a reward.
“Dopamine is a crucial messenger molecule of our motor and reward systems, and is extremely important for learning and enjoyment,” says Vanduffel. Activating the ventral tegmental area released dopamine, among other things. “By stimulating the brain area directly, we can causally link the activity in that area to perception or complex cognitive behaviour,” explains Vanduffel.
While the brain area was activated, the monkeys were shown virtually invisible images of human faces and bodies. Because the images were very blurry and the monkeys had to perform a very different and difficult task at the same time, they could not consciously perceive these images.
The same process was followed during the control tests, but the brain was not stimulated.
When the monkeys received subconscious visual stimuli while the ventral tegmental area was stimulated, they knew details about those images afterwards. For example, they knew whether the bodies shown were turned to the left or to the right. This was not the case when there had been no brain stimulation.

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