Newly discovered brain network sheds light on learning process
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Newly discovered brain network sheds light on learning process

We’re written before about the importance of activating prior knowledge in training. To briefly sum up: If you can connect new information to what learners already know, they’ll be much more likely to understand it, see it as important and remember it.

For years, researchers knew how important prior knowledge was to learning. But they didn’t know why until now, thanks to a discovery by neuroscientists at Washington University and the University of Texas.

The research

The study explored why new-but-familiar information is often retained by the brain while new, unfamiliar information is often forgotten. Researchers gave participants a series of memory tests while observing their brain activity using an MRI machine.

They found that when participants were questioned about something familiar – for example, shown a picture of someone they know and asked the person’s name – a distinct area of the brain lit up when they retrieved the information.

But when participants were asked something completely unknown – the name of a stranger, for example – the same area of the brain shut down.

Then researchers looked at what happened when participants were asked to memorize new, unfamiliar information – a word in a foreign language, for example. Again, this area of the brain was inactive. But when they asked participants to memorize something new but familiar – an unknown word that resembles a word they already know – that region of the brain lit back up again.

In fact, the study found that just by monitoring this area of the brain you can predict whether new information will be successfully recalled later.

The researchers realized they had found a previously undiscovered brain network, which they named the Parietal Memory Network (PMN). This network, which researchers say is critical to memory, leaps into action when it sees something as familiar and turns off when encountering something unfamiliar.

And, according to the head researcher, the PMN acts the same way regardless of what you’re trying to learn. “A really cool feature of the PMN is that it seems to show its response patterns regardless of what you’re doing,” said Dr. Adrian Gilmore. “The PMN doesn’t seem to care what it is that you’re trying to do. It deactivates when we encounter something new, and activates when we encounter something that we’ve seen before.”


The study shows a biological reason for why it’s so important to connect new information to learners’ existing knowledge. Prior knowledge activates the PMN, making it much more likely that your training will stick. So any time you can reference what learners already know about a topic before introducing new information, you increase your chances of success.

For example, if you’re training managers on employee engagement, ask them what they already know about the topic. What have they read or learned in the past? What have they seen work with employees? What are their own experiences with staying engaged at work?

And if you’re training learners on a completely new concept and can’t establish a direct connection to what they already know, present the new ideas using familiar language and well-known concepts. Draw comparisons and make analogies. Stress the similarities to other skills or concepts and play down the differences.

Gilmore, A. W., et al. (2015). A parietal memory network revealed by multiple MRI methods. Trends in Cognitive Science, 19(9), 534-543.

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