By Suzanne Smith
Mathewson with an electrode cap used in his research
We’ve all experienced the frustration of learning a new sport, like swinging a golf club for the first time, but have you ever thought about which parts of your brain help you to learn?
This year’s recipient of the Governor General’s Silver Medal Award with top marks for an undergraduate, Kyle Mathewson, is fascinated by neuroscience and the way the brain functions, so for his undergraduate honours research in psychology he decided to study the brain areas involved in learning a series of movements.
“I studied a part of the brain that is believed to use information about mistakes to adjust your actions in the future,” explains Mathewson.
Working in UVic’s Brain and Cognition Laboratory with his supervisor, Dr. Clay Holroyd, Mathewson recorded the brain activity of 30 undergraduate volunteers using an electroencephalogram. The students were asked to learn a sequence of button presses by trial and error and then perform the button sequence as quickly as possible.
“While the student volunteers were learning the sequence a specific part of their brains became activated when they were told they had made a mistake,” says Mathewson. “Later on when the students had learned the sequence this same part of their brains became activated the moment they made a mistake, but this time they no longer needed to be told they had made an error,” continued Mathewson. “This shows us that once we learn a series of movements we can begin to monitor our own behaviours without requiring feedback.”
Mathewson explains that brain research on learning helps us to better understand and help people with brain injuries or disorders, and it provides valuable information for educators to use in adapting their teaching styles to the processes of the brain.
Mathewson is starting a PhD program this fall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in cognitive neuroscience. He plans to work as a researcher and professor at a Canadian university.