May 03, 2006
Prospect Of Rewards Triggers Memory Formation

Reward-related areas of the brain tell other areas of the brain when events should have memories created for them.

The prospect of a paycheck, good grade, or promotion wonderfully concentrates the mind, and researchers have now identified the brain circuitry responsible for such reward-motivated learning.

In an article in the May 4, 2006, Neuron, Alison Adcock and colleagues report brain-scanning studies in humans that reveal how specific reward-related brain regions "alert" the brain's learning and memory regions to promote memory formation.

In their studies, the researchers asked volunteers to participate in two types of reward-related tasks as they scanned the subjects' brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging. In this technique, harmless magnetic fields and radio waves are used to detect regions of higher blood flow in the brain, which reflects higher activity.

In the first task, the researchers aimed at identifying the region involved in anticipating rewards. This task involved presenting the subjects with such symbols as circles or squares that indicated an amount of money the subjects could gain or lose--from no money to $5--by rapidly responding to a subsequently presented target by pressing a button. The subjects were notified immediately whether they had received the reward. The researchers found that reward anticipation activated specific brain structures in the "mesolimbic" region involved in the processing of emotions.

In the second task, the researchers sought to measure how this reward center promoted memory formation. They first showed subjects a "value" symbol that signified whether the image of a scene that followed would yield $5 or ten cents if they remembered it the next day. Then they showed the subjects the scene, and the next day tested their ability to pick the scene out of a group.

The researchers found that the subjects were far more likely to remember high-value scenes than low-value scenes. Importantly, they found that the cues to the high-reward scenes that were later remembered--but not those scenes later forgotten--activated the reward areas of the mesolimbic region as well as the learning-related hippocampus in the medial temporal lobe (MTL) of the brain. Activation prior to scene visualization suggests that the brain actually prepares in advance to filter incoming information rather than simply reacting to the world. Activation of the MTL is associated with higher brain functions, including learning and memory, and subjects who showed greater activation in these regions also showed better memory performance, found Adcock and colleagues.

The researchers concluded that the learning mechanism they identified "may let an organism's expectations and motivation interact with events in the physical world to influence learning. Thus, anticipatory activation of this mesolimbic circuit may help translate motivation into memory."

One of the problems with childhood education is that it seems so distant to eventual rewards in the job marketplace. If schools and parents could find better ways to reward better school performance the average kid in school might spend more time with their medial temporal lobe (MTL) activated and forming memories.

One problem with reward systems is that kids differ greatly in their ability to learn. How to gear a reward system to toward the abilities of each kid so that rewards are geared toward the upper range of how fast they can learn without having the rewards set too high so that the level of performance needed for rewards becomes unattainable for some kids or too easy for other kids?

Also, there's something to be said for a practice that I and many others to do themselves: Reward yourself for achieving some learning goal. When you set rewards for yourself to strive for you are setting up the conditions to active your brain's MTL.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 May 03 10:12 PM  Brain Economics

Doug said at May 4, 2006 4:43 PM:

Randall, your remark about giving children near-term rewards for learning reminds me of Paul Rahe's description, in his work Republics Ancient and Modern, of civics education in ancient Sparta. He says the teachers held sessions at mealtime and a hungry young man was rewarded with an extra piece of meat for a correct answer. Try to imagine having that kind of "school lunch program" in our schools!

Randall Parker said at May 4, 2006 5:58 PM:


The ancients were wise.

When I was writing the post one thought that crossed my mind is that if young Johnnie and Jill were not automatically given everything their parents could afford to buy for them then there'd be a lot more potential to use rewards as motivators for learning.

Lono said at May 5, 2006 9:09 AM:

Doug and Randall,

If your assertions are correct I would suspect that we would see increased performance in children who are home schooled because of the quick feedback they recieve for good performance and not just because of their smaller teacher to student ratio.

I know from my experience this tends to be true (despite the potential setbacks in child socialization) but does someone here actually have statistics on this?

I think we can all agree the current American public school system emphasizes conformity over educational achievement presently. (and this possibly by design)

JMG said at May 5, 2006 11:43 AM:

H. Stephen Glenn, PhD, had an interesting perspective on student development and learning (providing MY memory is correct). During the Carter Administration he was on a national task force (I believe his PhD was in sociology) to determine why major social indicators for young adults had taken negative trends after years of positive trends. Their conclusions were that it was due to the massive social change that occurred after WWII. During the war years, young women moved en mass into industrial war jobs (Rosie the Riveter). After the war, they married returning veterans and the couples remained in developing suburbia around large urban areas rather than returning to the small communities of their origin. When the tidal wave of their babies began hitting the school systems, the systems changed radically. Instead of being taught in small classes in small town schools, often by a relative, students were placed in large classes. Where before the children were part of an extended social network, now their network was predominately their peers. In the small towns, children were known by many. As I remember Glenn putting it, when they messed up bad at school, they walked by ten people in the small community who knew about the event on their way home. In the new school system, no one did. Where the learning needs of each student could be accomodated by the teachers who knew and cared about them in the small system, now learning and testing was homogenized. In the later stages of his career, he was working with parents, school systems and teachers to recover what was lost in that social transition. Part of these efforts were his books on developing capable people and on positive discipline.

Bob Badour said at May 5, 2006 6:10 PM:

Interestingly, the reward system has been in use for decades when dealing with 'problem' children. Behaviour modification programs rely heavily on rewards.

David Clausen said at May 7, 2006 1:00 AM:

It is interesting and also not too suprising that there is activation in the emotional centers of the brain. Emotion has been know to influence memory for some time, and it could be through this pathway that reward is affecting the memory system performance.

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