The Nature of Learning
Learning is at the basis of human life and underlies most of our abilities. In fact, most of the fundamental elements of having a physical body and preserving its health, require hardwired and automatic behaviors. Everyday skills and experiences such as walking, brushing teeth, driving a car, and even social interactions, require an automated process that provides efficiency and familiarity. Without familiarity and efficiency, it would be impossible for the brain to map the world around us, and therefore have any semblance of a meaningful and goal-directed life. This mapping is critical because one of the most important jobs that the brain has is the ability to anticipate the future. If we cannot anticipate the future, we cannot know which actions produce which results, and survival itself would be just a game of chance.
“Automaticity” refers to the ability of the brain to successfully perform certain behaviors, in a faster and less cognitively demanding manner, in order to ensure efficiency and conserve energy. Even expertise in music, art, and sports is made possible by the brain’s ability to execute high performance feats in a manner that doesn’t require conscious control. This property of the brain allows us to perform skilled tasks without having to relearn them every day. Without this ability, life as we know it would not be possible. This may sound a lot like instinct, and there are some similarities with automaticity, but the main difference is that instincts do not have to be explicitly learned.
Research on the neural bases of automaticity has borne out some interesting insights on what happens at the level of the brain when a skill has become ingrained. It appears that repetition is at the very core of automaticity, and when a person is repeatedly presented with a certain stimuli (or task), different memory processing networks become involved. When a task is still new, its performance is controlled by working memory, but as repetition continues, it is long-term memory that takes over. This ability to gradually embed a skill into long-term memory actually reflects the very basis of automaticity itself. Once the brain learns a behavior and appropriates it into long-term memory, it establishes it as a permanent skill. To draw an easy analogy, take the skill of riding a bicycle as an example, which once learned in childhood, is retained well into adulthood, even if many years go by without having ridden one in the interim.
The most important feature of automaticity and learning, is that it applies to virtually any skill/behavior. Anything that a person does, learns, or experiences is reflected in brain activity, which is measured in electrical currents called EEG (electroencephalogram), or brain waves. By measuring and rewarding certain patterns of EEG, a person can improve specific parameters of their brain activity. When a person undergoes neurofeedback training, the same process of learning takes place as in the acquisition of any other skill. Depending on what anyone’s goals in life may be, neurofeedback has the ability to target and improve the same circuits that are recruited in the attainment of those same goals. Therefore the activity that is reinforced in neurofeedback training, translates directly to the physical, cognitive, or psycho-emotional features that make up the human conscious experience. The permanence achieved in learning a task is established even better with neurofeedback because the same brain circuits that are reinforced in the training sessions, continue to be engaged outside of the session, and developed still further.
Whether it is paying better attention, managing anxiety, improving the quality of sleep, and so on, neurofeedback technology is able to provide results because it highlights the central position that the brain occupies in one’s life experience. As human innovation advances, it gives us a greater understanding of how remarkable the brain and body are, and how they can be tapped into and directed. As the brain is the foundation of all human experience, perhaps just as impressive as the life changing implications of neurofeedback, is that it also pushes the imagination of what is possible with a tool of this magnitude.