Your brain on origami

What happens in the brain when learning something new?
14 January 2020

Interview with 

Duncan Astle, University of Cambridge


An outline of a human head, filled with connections like vessels or nerves.


What goes on in your brain when you learn something like origami? Duncan Astle is at the department of neuroscience at Cambridge University, and he joined Chris Smith and Adam Murphy to explain all about the brain...

Duncan - Well, first thing to say is that when you use the word memory, there's lots of different things that you could be meaning. So you might mean, you know, where did I park the car earlier? That's a type of memory. But this is a very different type of memory: it's implicit memory. And we know that it's really quite separate from explicit memory, and that's because even people who have amnesia - often due to brain damage, so they've lost the ability to lay down new explicit memories - they can still learn really quite complex skills, something like origami.

Chris - So if I took someone who had no ability to make new memories, and I asked them, "what have you just done," they would have no idea; but they would have some kind of latent motor memory of folding paper to make something?

Duncan - Exactly. So there's some really nice studies showing that each time the patient comes back in for their next training session, they show no explicit memory of having done any previous training sessions, but their performance on the tasks shows that they are getting gradually better. Just as you would expect with someone who didn't have amnesia.

Chris - How is the brain storing a memory at all? Whether it's actually something which is, where I parked the car, or a new sequence of motor movements to fold paper.

Duncan - So behind your eyes, buried quite deep, is a structure called the hippocampus, and there's lots of brain structures around it. And we know that that structure is really important for explicit memory. So if it's damaged, that might well impair your ability to lay down new explicit memories. But we know that that's not necessary for learning higher order skills like origami. And so if you think of the brain, think of Adam's brain, it contains probably about a hundred billion neurons - or brain cells - give or take. And they're specialised for different things. So there'll be some that are specialised for planning, for attention, for rotating mental objects, and for fine motor skills. And if you can train someone over a long time on a complex task like origami, then the brain starts to join up those brain cells in a stronger way.

Adam - Now I know for most of the models I've been practicing with, I still need the instructions in front of me, but something like the Japanese crane I can just do without having to think about it. It's like my hands just do it. What's going on there? Like with muscle memory?

Duncan - If you think about where your ears are, and you were to draw a line between those and the top of your head, you would have drawn a line across what's called the motor strip. And so that's the part of the brain that's really important for fine motor control. So for instance, all of the brain cells that control your digits, your fingers, can be found in there. But they're connected to areas just in front of them, called premotor cortex, and to lots of areas in the parietal lobes just behind them, which are really important for thinking about spatial relationships. And we know that if you train someone on something like origami, then as they get better at it, those areas become denser, so they sprout new synapses or new joints to other brain cells; and they become better connected, so you get boosts in white matter, which is the insulation around the cables of the brain. And so essentially as you become more of a master at origami, those areas become more hardwired together and so they're better able to communicate information.

Adam - Okay, so now I can fold things like paper, birds, and turtles. Is that going to help me elsewhere? Will I become a better guitar player because I know how to fold a bird?

Duncan - The million dollar question. So there is now an emerging science of brain training. It's still in its early phases, but what we and some others have shown is that over the course of the training, you can gradually alter the connections between these different parts of the brain that are needed for the task; and that that improvement will generalise to other things, but often not very far. So for instance, it might generalise from making a crane to making a turtle, but it might not generalise to playing the guitar. There is a study out there showing that kids who've got maths problems, for example, they do respond positively to an origami intervention. But as with many of the studies in this area, the devil's in the detail, you know, there's no control group in this, and the group is very small for example.

Chris - I read a study, I think it was in Nature Neuroscience a while back, and it was looking at people who were being shown people throwing a basketball at a basket. And the way they did the study was they asked the general public and basketball coaches to look at shots where the ball was shown leaving the hand of the thrower, and they were asked, "did it go in?" And they also had a third group they studied that were pro basketballers. They looked at the small muscles in the hand, the electrical activity going on. And what they found is that the basketball coaches, despite being very good at basketball, were no better than the general public at making these predictions. "Will the ball go in?" But the pros were really, really good at doing it. But when they looked at how they were doing it, there was activity in the muscles in the hand that they would have thrown with. And it was almost like they were mapping onto their own brain what they were looking at, and pretending they were the thrower on the basketball court. And that was enabling them to make these very accurate predictions about whether or not that ball would go in.

Duncan - Yeah. So the area of premotor cortex we know is about sort of sequencing complex movements, and it's highly overlapping with areas involving things like mental imagery. And so it stands to reason that the better able you are to sync that area with the actual motor cortex... the two things kind of go hand in hand. So for instance, when you're learning to do a complex sport like tennis or rowing, often your coach will make you watch people do it really, really well. And actually that can have a very beneficial effect on your ability to do it because it's strengthening those connections.


Add a comment