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Risk little, learn little

By John Published: March 23, 2011

Here's an interesting study at UCLA published in the March 23 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience about how quickly the brain corrects misperceptions of sights and sounds. Turns out it's pretty darn quick. Here's UCLA's press release:

New research provides the first evidence that sensory recalibration  the brain's automatic correcting of errors in our sensory or perceptual systems  can occur instantly. 

"Until recently, neuroscientists thought of sensory recalibration as a mechanism that is primarily used for coping with long-term changes, such as growth during development, brain injury or stroke," said Ladan Shams, a UCLA assistant professor of psychology and an expert on perception and cognitive neuroscience. "It appeared that extensive time, and thus many repetitions of error, were needed for mechanisms of recalibration to kick in. However, our findings indicate we don't need weeks, days, or even minutes or seconds to adapt. To some degree, we adapt instantaneously.


"If recalibration can occur in milliseconds, as we now think, then we can adapt even to transient changes in the environment and in our bodies."

So what does that have to do with learning? 

In a dynamic world, things may change constantly. The optimal strategy is to learn, and to learn you need to take some risks. Even if that's not the best choice at that time, in the long run, it may well be the best choice, because by exploring different possibilities, you may learn more. So paradoxically, a strategy that appears sub-optimal may actually be near-optimal. Perhaps the way we think about brain function should be revised."



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