Study offers clues on memory puzzle

Scientists have shed light on why it is easier to learn about things related to what we know than to learn about unfamiliar things.

The team says this is a paradox, as very different things are arguably more novel, yet adding to what we already know is so much easier.

Researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Tokyo have found that building on existing knowledge activates a key set of genes in the brain.

These ‘plasticity’ genes do not respond so well to subjects about which we know very little, making it harder for us to form new memories about unfamiliar topics.

Learning paradox

The team says this could help us understand how professionals acquire their knowledge gradually over time and may inform new educational strategies to boost learning.

The study - funded by the Medical Research Council - was conducted in partnership with Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharmaceutical Company.

The findings have been published in the journal Science.

This curious effect is seen in a specific part of the cortex whose functions are still poorly understood – so there is still much work to be done. But a combination of biomedical and human brain imaging work has this as a key aim for future research. We also plan to look at how professional knowledge is gradually acquired and organised in the brain

Professor Richard MorrisRoyal Society/Wolfson Professor of Neuroscience