Brown researchers discover induced visual learning

Volunteers, vertical stripes and visual association were all keys to the success of a recent experiment by Brown University’s Takeo Watanabe, professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences, designed to observe the power of associative learning.

Watanabe’s research sought to determine whether subjects could perceive colors that were not actually present by teaching them to associate color with patterns, establishing what is called associative learning.

Together with colleagues in Japan, Brown University scientists trained viewers to process visual information without subjects being aware of the goal in a type of figuratively “color-blind” experiment. Volunteers learned to associate vertical stripes with red and horizontal stripes with green using different areas of the brain.

“This is the first clear study that shows that V1 and V2 [visual areas of the brain] are capable of creating associative learning,” Watanabe, who served as co-author of a paper summarizing the work in the journal Current Biology, said.

While associative learning and memory is typically used in everyday life, Watanabe said that the value of the study lay in discovering that early visual areas of the brain could be involved. He stated that his findings may enable MRI-based educational or therapeutic applications in the future.

“Our brain functions are mostly based on associative processing, so association is extremely important,” Watanabe said. “Now we know that this technology can be applied to induce associative learning.”

Measurements were obtained on test subjects by using a magnetic resonance imaging scanner, and the research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Japanese government.

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