Scientists say they've found a way for people to learn to play a piano, fly a plane or hit a curve ball with little or no conscious effort.
All people need do, says the team, is watch a computer screen while having their brain patterns modified via decoded functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to match those of, say, a high-performing athlete.
The Japanese and American scientists used decoded fMRI to induce brain activity patterns to match a previously known target state, and found it improved performance on visual tasks.
"Adult early visual areas are sufficiently plastic to cause visual perceptual learning," says Boston University neuroscientist Takeo Watanabe.
Neuroscientists have found that pictures gradually build up inside a person's brain, appearing first as lines, edges, shapes, colors and motion in early visual areas. The brain then fills in greater detail to make a red ball appear as a red ball, for example.
The team studied the early visual areas for their ability to cause improvements in visual performance and learning.
"Some previous research confirmed a correlation between improving visual performance and changes in early visual areas, while other researchers found correlations in higher visual and decision areas," says Watanabe.
"However, none of these studies directly addressed the question of whether early visual areas are sufficiently plastic to cause visual perceptual learning."
The decoded fMRI neurofeedback was used to induce a particular activation pattern in early visual areas that correspond to a pattern evoked by a specific visual feature in a brain region of interest. And, they found, repetitions of the activation pattern caused long-lasting performance improvement.
What's more, the approached worked even when test subjects were not aware of what they were learning.
"The most surprising thing in this study is that mere inductions of neural activation patterns corresponding to a specific visual feature led to visual performance improvement on the visual feature, without presenting the feature or subjects' awareness of what was to be learned," says Watanabe.
"We found that subjects were not aware of what was to be learned, while behavioral data obtained before and after the neurofeedback training showed that subjects' visual performance improved specifically for the target orientation, which was used in the neurofeedback training."
So far, the method's been tested only for visual learning. But, says the team, there's no obvious reason why it couldn't work for memory, motor and rehabilitation.