Thoughtless exploration

When I attempted to master a roller skate pirouette, my brain clearly had no successful plan available to control my muscles. After a while, I stared at the asphalt. Having no clue how to get started. Are you familiar with the feeling of not knowing how to continue? Then this blog is for you.

When you want to learn something and you fail repeatedly, you have to change something in your behavior. In other words, you need to explore. What do you do when you no longer know what you could change? In this blog you read how your brain cells can explore by themselves.

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Sloppy brain cells

When you want to make a movement, your brain cells need to send a movement plan to the muscles. Otherwise your muscles don’t know what to do. To send the movement plan to the muscles your brain cells need to communicate.

Just like people do, brain cells often react a little bit different than intended. They are sloppy. When you try to repeat the same movement plan, the result is slightly different each time. Try to repeat the same dart throw ten times. The dart will probably land in a different spot each time. Because your movement plan changes, even when you don’t intend to change it, you can stumble upon an accidentally successful movement plan. I also wrote about this in the blog ‘Sloppy brain sloppy hands.’ Here your read how your brain cells may cleverly adjust the size of the changes.

How much to change

How much you need to change depends on how close you are to success. When attempting my pirouette I barely lifted myself from the ground. I needed to change a lot. When you are close to success you shouldn’t make large changes. Indeed changes in how you execute a movement increase with the number of times you haven’t been successful, researchers from John Hopkins Medicine showed in the Journal of Neuroscience. But can the prospect of success change the sloppiness of brain cells?

The prospect of reward reduces sloppiness

measuringbirdWhen measuring the activity of brain cells we often resort to testing animals because we don’t like sticking electrodes in human brains

A recent review in Annual Reviews in Neuroscience asked the same question: whether the prospect of success changes the sloppiness of brain cells. The paper describes how research on songbirds suggests that the prospect of success does change sloppiness. Song producing neurons become less sloppy when a birds sees an attractive mate, providing the prospect of rewarding intercourse. Whether this also works in humans is unknown, but often humans and animals work the same way.

It makes sense to persist

The cool thing is that your brain cells can automatically explore. Perhaps they can even cleverly reduce the exploration when success is near. It makes sense to persist even when you no longer know what to change. Your brain cells can let you stumble on accidental success!

Of course your conscious thoughts can help you explore. In the next blog I will describe how they do so.

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