With midterms fast approaching, students are looking for the most efficient method possible to learn and retain information. As the saying goes, working smarter instead of working harder may give the best results.

UC Santa Barbara professor of psychological and brain sciences Scott Grafton, along with scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University, developed an experiment to analyze the learning process in the brains of individuals playing a simple game, and compared the differences in activity that led to different completion times, or faster learning. The researchers analyzed the connections between various brain regions and discovered that participants who had more activated brain regions during practice took longer to learn the task at hand. The study was published in Nature Neuroscience.

The game, which Grafton and colleague Nicholas Wymbs of Johns Hopkins University’s Human Brain Physiology and Stimulation Laboratory developed for the study, required participants from UC Santa Barbara to view and repeat sequences of color on a handheld controller as accurately and quickly as possible. The participants had to practice the task outside of the lab after the initial screening, during which their activity was recorded remotely, and then get fMRI scans every two weeks in order to examine their mastery of the skill over a six-week period.

As expected, there was a decrease in task completion times for all persons, but the rates at which they occurred varied from person to person. Danielle Bassett, the Skirkanich assistant professor of innovation at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and lead author of the study, developed a new computational approach to map out the brain regions that were most actively communicating during the learning process.

By comparing the activation patterns in different parts of the brain, the researchers were able to determine communication between particular brain regions depending on how close the activity patterns resembled each other. These relationships were then graphed and assessed using a technique known as dynamic community detection.

“There are certain nodes in a network that are densely interconnected to each other, while everything else is either independent or very loosely connected.” Bassett said.

Dynamic community detection mathematically sketches interactions between different brain regions and determines how those interactions change over time, as is expected in the case of learning. The more familiar the brain becomes with a task, the more likely the brain skips through tedious steps in order to achieve the same result.

“The visual and motor blocks are very connected during the first few trials, but as the experiment progresses, they become almost autonomous,” Bassett said.

Bassett’s mathematical model shows that there was more communication between the frontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex in the brains of slow-learning participants than in fast-learning participants.

“These cortical areas of the brain are associated with ‘top-down’ cognitive control,” Grafton said. “The sooner they stopped interacting with the rest of the brain, the faster a subject learned.”

According to Grafton, there comes a point in learning physical skills when thinking and mental control can impair performance and learning. Conversely, there is a time when focus on motor control can pose a detriment to completing a mental task. He proposed that divergent concentration might increase the rate of learning in individuals.

“For physical skills, there is a point where it is good to teach [individuals] to focus on something other than their movements,” said Grafton. “For other skills, like language learning, there is a point where it is good to focus on something other than perfect grammar.”

The researchers speculated that fast-learning participants of the study were better able to use motor memory to their advantage the moment they recognize the first few parts of a color sequence. As a result, there is less need for constant communication between the brain regions that control vision and the ones that control movement.

“Communication between other parts of the brain is getting in the way for slower learners,” Bassett said. “It’s almost like they’re trying too hard and overthinking it.”