Newswise — The point of education is learning to learn, and that requires a certain self-awareness. The mind seems to monitor the brain, telling you if you need to review some information again, or if you know it cold, or if you could recognize it when you saw it again. Now, a novel fMRI study of people learning new information, published in the December issue of Nature Neuroscience, tells us where that part of the "mind" is.

"We've known through psychological studies that the brain performs these two functions, encoding the memory and predicting whether the information will be later recalled," said John Gabrieli, an associate member of the McGovern Institute at MIT and the lead author of the study, which appeared online on November 13. "But without these brain imaging studies, we might have thought they occurred in the same brain region. This is our first insight into the different brain mechanisms for memory and prediction, what psychologists call judgments of learning."

The fMRI studies showed that one specific brain region becomes very active when actually encoding facts in memory, while a quite separate region lights up when people predict whether they will later remember what they've learned. The encoding region lies in the medial temporal lobe (MTL), near the ear. The predicting region lies in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), above the eyes. These two physically and functionally distinct circuits communicate with each other through the lateral and dorsal prefrontal cortex (LDPFC) at the outer end of the cortex.

Predicting is an important part of successful learning because it allows us to judge whether we've studied enough or need to review more, explained John Gabrieli, who is also the director of the Martinos Imaging Center at the McGovern Institute and the Grover Hermann Professor in Harvard-MIT Health, Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience. People who make more accurate prediction are better learners, and better students. Some people can intuitively judge their own memory; others must learn the skill. Gabrieli hopes that understanding more about the brain mechanisms involved in this type of introspection might help people become better learners.

Learning is just one example of how the "mind" can inspect its own content, he notes, and the VMPFC may be a key to the broader issue of self-awareness. Interestingly, the metal rod that pierced Phineas Gage's brain back in 1848 obliterated the VMPC, transforming him from a soft-spoken, dependable fellow into a loud-mouthed drifter with virtually no self-awareness.

Yun-Ching Kao and Emily Davis of the Stanford University Department of Psychology contributed to the research. The study was conducted at Stanford with support from the National Institute of Mental Health/NIH.

About the McGovern Institute at MIT

The McGovern Institute at MIT is a research and teaching institute committed to advancing human understanding and communications. Led by a team of world-renowned, multi-disciplinary scientists, The McGovern Institute was established in February 2000 by Lore Harp McGovern and Patrick McGovern to meet one of the great challenges of modern science - the development of a deep understanding of thought and emotion in terms of their realization in the human brain. Additional information is available at: