Historically the hippocampus is the brain area most associated with learning however, I feel one structure has been underestimated – the cerebellum. Ordinarily the cerebellum is associated with movement and specifically fine motor skills. However if you look at the role of the cerebellum much more carefully it is ground in prediction. Patients who have cerebellar damage are able to make large movement such as move their arm, albeit with a tremor, but cannot touch their nose, a fine motor movement. They are unable to predict the position of their nose in order to touch it.
When the cerebellum is involved in motor movements the signal inputs from the relevant area, in this case the motor area, and transmits to the cerebellum. Fibres in the cerebellum are constantly updating the system with any errors to result in the correct behaviour. This correction is then transmitted back to same brain area (motor area) to correct the behaviour. Of course, if the behaviour is correct then the cerebellum is not involved and the behaviour happens almost unconsciously – a habit. I wonder if this happens for more than just motor control – predictions and learning from mistakes happens in many more behaviours than motor skills so could the cerebellum have much more of a role than we realised.
Recently studies have been conducted with participants being put in fMRI scanners to find out just this. Their cerebellum brain activity is measured in many other activities to see what role the cerebellum plays – whether it is prediction in all behaviours or just specifically motor control.
Just quickly – a fMRI scanner measures the emission of oxygen from the specific brain area which is a sign of more blood being directed to that brain area and used for the activity being performed.
So when these peoples cerebellums are measured different areas become activated dependent on the different activities. These different activities included language, affective and of course motor problems, the latter just included as a comparison. It shows that these activities are processed in the cerebellum when they involve a need for a prediction. In regards to language a prediction would be understand what a person is about to say based on previous encounters to aid the social interaction. The cerebellum has also be suggested to have an association with dyslexia, perhaps the cerebellum plays a part in reading, predicting the next words to come aiding a quick read rather than stumbling over unexpected words as those with dyslexia do. An affective prediction could also be in a social situation such as predicting what an emotional expression means and how the person feels. These predictions are based upon previous encounters and the way we react is simply an error signal. Signals in the cerebellum output an error to tell the person the difference between their behaviour and the desired behaviour. This is only decreased when the desired behaviour is obtained.
Reading this got me thinking about the school environment, we are forever predicting the best way to solve a problem, in maths for example, and if it goes wrong learning from the mistake to do it a different way the next time. Learning from experience what the best way to go about a problem is the underlying way that the cerebellum works. It sends an error signal to appropriate brain area telling it to adapt to the desired behaviour.
Maybe some difficulties that children face at school relate to the cerebellum and if we understood how it worked better we could help some of the children who struggle with predictions – cant learn from their mistakes to gain the right answer time after time.