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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Northwestern Study: MRI Shows How Learning is an Active Process

If you have ever explored a new city by car, chances are you memorized routes better when you navigated to the destination, rather than passively following directions provided by a passenger. The reason, say Northwestern Medicine neuroscientists in a new study, is that decisions individuals make during learning greatly influence how well the brain retains information. According to the study, the more control an individual has to selectively decide what information is needed to fill gaps in understanding, the more likely the learner is to retain the knowledge.


Published in the journal Neuron, the research for the first time studied real-world learning using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine what factors help people learn, and what areas of the brain are most active during the process. The findings could provide insight into what it means to have a learning disability or memory disorder.

“Rather than just passively absorbing information around us, we are active agents in constant interaction with our environments,” said Dr. Joel Voss, assistant professor of medical social sciences and neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We found that people vary in how well they are able to acquire the right information to best support their learning, with some being totally ineffective and others being tremendously successful.”

Dr. Voss and Dr. Jane Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at Feinberg, co-authored the paper. They are interested in finding what neurological factors determine successful learning, and how these factors come into play for those with learning disabilities or memory loss.

“This information is novel, and really changes how we think about and address learning problems,” said Dr. Wang. “What does it mean to have a learning disability?  We have traditionally thought of these disabilities as a problem with retaining information; someone reads a book and can’t recall what he or she read when it is time for a test. But maybe instead, it is a problem with acquiring the right kind of information the person needs to commit details to memory.”

Read more on the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine website.

[Photo: Dr. Joel Voss]