By | John Anderer | www.theladders.com
From the most insignificant of decisions to life-altering choices, context is key. Context is what tells us to grab the heavy winter jacket on especially chilly mornings or pack some sunglasses while heading to the beach on a summer afternoon. It isn’t something we all consciously recognize as it happens, but the human mind is constantly using environmental information to help form choices.
Without context, life would be like trying to find your way through a pitch-black room forever. If a recently sober friend who had struggled with alcoholism in the past invited you over for a party, would you bring over a bottle of vodka? Of course not, and it’s easy to understand why given the context of your friend’s personal history.
A new study just released by the University of Tsukuba and the National Eye Institute (NEI) has uncovered for the first time the neuronal processes responsible for humanity’s ability to instantly learn and establish context across any given situation.
In short, the study authors conclude contextual learning takes place within the brain’s basal ganglia region, facilitated by the movements of fast-spiking neurons.
“Value and reward are known to be encoded in the part of the brain called the basal ganglia,” explains Distinguished Investigator Dr. Okihide Hikosaka from the NEI. “We set out to identify the specific neuronal circuits underlying environment-based value learning.”
Somewhat ironically, these findings were not produced using human subjects. No, instead the research team looked to humanity’s closed relative in the animal kingdom: monkeys.