Nav: Home

'Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain'

January 18, 2017

PRINCETON, N.J. -- The Wizard of Oz told Dorothy to "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain" in an effort to distract her, but a new Princeton University study sheds light on how people learn and make decisions in real-world situations.

The findings could eventually contribute to improved teaching and learning and the treatment of mental and addiction disorders in which people's perspectives are dysfunctional or fractured.

The study appears in the journal Neuron. A PDF is available on request.

The researchers studied how we learn what to pay attention to in order to learn more effectively -- that is, to make the most of life experiences -- assuming that in real-life situations most of what is going on is irrelevant and shouldn't be learn about. For example, when you order something new in a restaurant - perhaps anchovy pizza -- you should learn whether you like or dislike anchovy pizza, rather than attribute the pleasurable experience to the particular table you're sitting at. Or when crossing a street, you should pay attention to the speed and direction of oncoming traffic, while the colors of cars can be safely ignored.

Participants in the study performed a multidimensional trial-and-error learning task, while researchers scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The researchers found that selective attention is used to determine the value of different options. The results also showed that selective attention shapes what we learn when something unexpected happens. For example, if your pizza is better or worse than expected, you attribute the learning to whatever your attention was focused on and not to features you decided to ignore. Finally, the researchers found that what we learn through this process teaches us what to pay attention to, creating a feedback cycle -- we learn about what we attend to, and we attend to what we learned high values for.

"If we want to understand learning, we can't ignore the fact that learning is almost always done in a multidimensional 'cluttered' environment," says senior author Yael Niv, an associate professor in psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. "We want kids to listen to the teacher, but a lot is going on in the classroom -- there is so much to look at inside it and out the window. So, it's important to understand how exactly attention and learning interact and how they shape each other."

Most research has looked at "exogenous" attention, or things that capture our attention automatically such as a loud noise or flash of light. But Niv and her colleagues are interested in "endogenous" attention, or how we choose to pay attention to the environment in order to maximize what we learn from each experience, and what processes shape those internal decisions of what to attend to.
-end-
The study included first authors Yuan Chang Leong and Angela Radulescu.

Princeton Associate Professor Yael Niv is available to comment at yael@exchange.Princeton.EDU.

Broadcast studios: Princeton has TV and radio studios available for interviews. For more information, visit: https://www.princeton.edu/bc/services/ or contact bctv@princeton.edu, (609) 258-7872.

Princeton University

Related Learning Articles:

Learning with light: New system allows optical 'deep learning'
A team of researchers at MIT and elsewhere has come up with a new approach to complex computations, using light instead of electricity.
Mount Sinai study reveals how learning in the present shapes future learning
The prefrontal cortex shapes memory formation by modulating hippocampal encoding.
Better learning through zinc?
Zinc is a vital micronutrient involved in many cellular processes: For example, in learning and memory processes, it plays a role that is not yet understood.
Deep learning and stock trading
A study undertaken by researchers at the School of Business and Economics at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) has shown that computer programs that algorithms based on artificial intelligence are able to make profitable investment decisions.
Learning makes animals intelligent
The fact that animals can use tools, have self-control and certain expectations of life can be explained with the help of a new learning model for animal behavior.
Learning Morse code without trying
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a system that teaches people Morse code within four hours using a series of vibrations felt near the ear.
The adolescent brain is adapted to learning
Teenagers are often portrayed as seeking immediate gratification, but new work suggests that their sensitivity to reward could be part of an evolutionary adaptation to learn from their environment.
The brain watched during language learning
Researchers from Nijmegen, the Netherlands, have for the first time captured images of the brain during the initial hours and days of learning a new language.
Learning in the absence of external feedback
Rewards act as external factors that influence and reinforce learning processes.
New learning procedure for neural networks
Neural networks learn to link temporally dispersed stimuli.

Related Learning Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Changing The World
What does it take to change the world for the better? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on activism—what motivates it, why it matters, and how each of us can make a difference. Guests include civil rights activist Ruby Sales, labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, author Jeremy Heimans, "craftivist" Sarah Corbett, and designer and futurist Angela Oguntala.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#521 The Curious Life of Krill
Krill may be one of the most abundant forms of life on our planet... but it turns out we don't know that much about them. For a create that underpins a massive ocean ecosystem and lives in our oceans in massive numbers, they're surprisingly difficult to study. We sit down and shine some light on these underappreciated crustaceans with Stephen Nicol, Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania, Scientific Advisor to the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies, and author of the book "The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World".