Cognitive Science
Experience vital for complex decision-making
May 20, 2009 - 11:31:22 AM

Experience is vital when we have to make complex decisions based on uncertain or confusing information, a new study has found.

'Learning from experience actually rewires our brains so that we can categorise the things we are looking at, and respond appropriately to them,' said Zoe Kourtzi from the University of Birmingham, who led the research.

In selecting a course of action that is most likely to be successful, the brain has to interpret and ascribe meaning to inherently uncertain information - being able to do this is vital for our survival.

This ability is critical when we are responding to visual stimuli that are very similar - for example, trying to recognise friends in a crowd or discern a tumour from healthy tissue on a medical scan.

'We have shown that this learning process is not just a matter of learning the structure of the physical world - when I look at something I'm not just playing a game of 'snap' in my head where I try to match images to each other,' Kourtzi said.

'In fact, areas in our brains are actually trained to learn the rules that determine the way we interpret sensory information,' he said, according to a university statement.

Kourtzi and colleagues wanted to find out about the human brain mechanisms that mediate flexible decision-making through learning, which have so far not been well understood, despite it being fairly clear that successful decisions benefit from previous experience.

They combined measurements of behaviour and brain signals to study how volunteers learned to discriminate between highly similar visual patterns and to assign them in different categories.

The research was published in Wednesday's edition of Neuron.

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