Learning Physics Changes How Your Brain Works

Florida International University

A new study has shown that physics problems can light up parts of the brain traditionally not associated with learning science. The discovery could help improve how the subject is actually taught.

Fifty participants in the study were scanned using functional MRI (fMRI) while solving a physics test, known as the Force Concept Inventory. The student volunteers performed the test once when they only had knowledge of physics from early college courses, and then again after participating in physics lessons that used the “Modelling Instruction” method. This approach encourages students to be active participants when learning. The study is published in Frontiers in ICT and was led by graduate student and co-first author Jessica Bartley. 

During the first test, the areas of the brain that became active were the lateral prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex. These regions tend to activate when people focus on problem-solving tasks, pay attention, or use their working memory. The lateral prefrontal cortex is often linked to imagination, suggesting that physics requires the learner to mentally picture what's going on.

However, following completion of the physics course, new areas of the brain lit up. Activity in the frontal poles increased and a region known as the posterior cingulate cortex became active too. This brain area has previously been linked to episodic memory and self-referential thought. This suggests that the Modelling Instruction method of teaching makes students approach physics in a different way, even at the cerebral level.

“These changes in brain activity may be related to more complex behavioral changes in how students reason through physics questions post- relative to pre-instruction,”  co-lead author Eric Brewe, from Drexel University, stated. “These might include shifts in strategy or an increased access to physics knowledge and problem-solving resources.”

The Modeling Instruction approach tells students to use their own mental models – the way they see the world – to understand the physical concepts they are learning. Mental models are often discussed when it comes to learning strategies and the researchers used their study to show how the models might take hold in the brain. What's more, how we learn might be particularly important in physics.

“Physics is a really good place to understand learning for two reasons,” Brewe said. “First, it deals with things that people have direct experience with, making formal classroom learning and informal understanding both relevant and sometimes aligned – and sometimes contrasted. Second, physics is based in laws, so there are absolutes that govern the way the body works.”

According to the team, the follow-up work could go in different directions, from working out how best to approach physics lessons to determining potential differences in brain processes based on learning level. It will be interesting to see how this research develops further and if similar brain changes are found when people approach other subjects.

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