A recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences may provide researchers with a framework to help determine a person’s learning capacity for motor activities.

Scientists from various areas of the world performed the studies at the UCSB Brain Imaging Center in order to find out how to predict a person’s learning capacity on different days.

According to senior author Scott Grafton, UCSB psychology professor and director of the Brain Imaging Center, the study has applications for physical therapy and other learning activities.

“Our study has obvious implications clinically,” Grafton said in a press release. “If you’re a patient in physical therapy, should you just take tomorrow off? Or will it be a good day? We don’t know that, but that would be a potential application — tailoring intervention to capacity to change. In healthy people, this information could accelerate learning — when you should study, when you should practice, when you should try to acquire a new skill.”

The study was performed by having volunteers press a series of buttons in a certain sequence as quickly as they could. Then, using MRI scans, the researchers observed the activity within the brain to determine how different regions communicated with each other. The scientists found that, very much like the process of natural selection, the most flexible brain — the one that can make new connections between the different regions the quickest — learns the best.

“That flexibility seems to be the factor that predicts learning,” first author Danielle Bassett, a postdoctoral fellow in physics at UCSB, said in a press release. “So, if you are very flexible, then you will end up learning better on the second day, and if you are not very flexible, then you learn less.”

UCSB’s Nicholas Wymbs and Jean Carlson, as well as University of Oxford’s Mason Porter and University of North Carolina’s Peter Mucha, were also authors of the study.