A recently published article from UCSB psychology professor F. Gregory Ashby has demonstrated how individuals process a newly learned motor skill until it becomes automatic — using their frontal lobe.

Ashby was joined in research and in the publication of the article in the Journal of Neuroscience by UCSB psychology postdoctoral researcher Sebastien Helie and graduate student Jessica Roeder. The team focused on identifying which brain structures aer responsible for rule-based categorization performances.

The trials found that if one wanted to explain to another person how a motor skill is done, they must bring that information to the prefrontal cortex in order to analyze it piece by piece. This is why a sports player might have fantastic playing skills, but cannot always coach and tell another person exactly how to do what they do.

Helie said the trials involved fMRI so that they could directly see how the undergraduate’s brain activity varied from the beginning to the end of the sessions.

“It was important to see how categorizations became automatic after practice,” Helie said. “After practice you have a direct connection, whereas during learning there is a whole process that the brain must go through. Those 11,000 trials showed us how brain activation changed between session one and session 20.”

Roeder referred to the fact that so few studies focus on an individual transitioning on performing a skill a few times to the skill becoming automatic. While Roeder was computing the fMRI data from the individual undergraduates she noticed occasional data readouts that were more peculiar than the rest.

“I was surprised looking at some of the data because of how drastically different everyone was in their brains,” Roeder said. “It really made me wonder what exactly was that person thinking at this exact moment in time.”