Putting the Prefrontal Cortex into the Slow Group

My alma mater recently published results of a study regarding the interaction of the left brain (prefrontal cortex) and the reptile brain (basal ganglia) in learning. While you might be inclined to assume that the higher functions would be the seat of learning, you'd be wrong:

"What we found was evidence for something very different," Pasupathy said. "We found that as monkeys learn new, simple rules--associations analogous to 'stop at red, go at green'--the striatum of the basal ganglia shows evidence of learning much sooner and faster than the prefrontal cortex. But, an interesting wrinkle is that the the monkeys' behavior improved at a slow rate, similar to that of the slower changes in
prefrontal cortex."
The researchers speculate that perhaps the faster learning in the basal ganglia allows us (and our primitive ancestors who lacked a prefrontal cortex) to quickly pick up important information needed for survival. The prefrontal cortex then monitors what the basal ganglia have learned. Its slower, more deliberate learning mechanisms allow it to gather a more judicious "big picture" of what is going on by taking into account more history and thereby exert executive control over behavior, Miller said.

So, in other words, the fight or flight part of the brain quickly learns things, but behaviors change more slowly? Score another one for William James and the Rosetta Stone of learning! Could this also be the reason that in order to get people (and organizations) to change they usually need to face some immediate crisis? If we get the basal ganglia really excited they can accelerate the opinion rationalization process! Is this why John Kotter added the need for a See-Feel-Respond activity to kick start organizational change in his book The Heart of Change?


(via Winds of Change)

posted by Mike at 4:22 AM


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