The role of attention in our ability to learn new associations highlighted

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The covariance maps observed for the two significant periods of 126 to 148 ms an
The covariance maps observed for the two significant periods of 126 to 148 ms and 573 to 638 ms represent two specific topographies (on the left of the figure) associated with increased learning performance. Analysis of the sources underlying these topographies (on the right of the figure) show the involvement of the precuneus during the first period and the superior frontal gyrus during the second.
A study by BEAM researchers, published in "Science of Learning", offers new insights into brain mechanisms linked to differences in associative learning. This research explores how attentional processes influence learning performance, shedding light on our understanding of how the brain works to create relationships between information .

The way in which people assimilate information by associating elements varies considerably from one person to another, and it seems that attentional processes play a central role in these differences. However, few studies to date have explored the electrical signals generated by our brains to study these processes in this type of learning.

To answer these questions, this study recorded the electrical brain activity (EEG) of 38 young adults as they performed a learning task based on novel associations between abstract shapes and colors. By trial-and-error, participants had to "guess" the correct associations between shapes and colors by answering yes or no. EEG data were processed using topographic analyses to examine the spatio-temporal distribution of signals, as well as source-location analyses to identify the brain regions underlying this associative learning task.

The results reveal that the best performers in this learning task show specific brain responses to process the stimuli. At 126’148 ms after stimulus onset (P1 component), an increase in activation of the precuneus in the parietal cortex, involved in spatial attention, is associated with better performance. Between 573 and 638 ms (component P3b), an increase in activation of the superior frontal gyrus of the prefrontal cortex, known for regulating attentional and decision-making processes, is observed in people who learn better in this task. Finally, between 322 and 507 ms, an increase in activity in the occipital gyrus, involved in visual discrimination and the ability to associate stimuli, is also linked to better success in the task.

These results suggest that individuals who learn more efficiently mobilize brain mechanisms associated with attention in a distinctive way. They engage more brain resources, particularly in regions linked to the early phases of attention and to decision-making processes specific to an associative learning task. These results confirm the importance of attentional mechanisms in the variability of associative learning processes in young adults.