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Physics makes your brain work differently

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Here's another reason to love physics; solving physics problems lights up parts of the brain associated with attention, working memory and problem solving.

The phenomenon also suggests that learning physics is an imaginative process, which is at odds with how the discipline is usually perceived.

Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to measure blood flow in the brain, researchers looked to map what areas become active when completing a physics reasoning task, both before a course on the concepts and after.

More than 50 volunteer students took part in the study in which they were taught a physics course that used 'Modeling Instruction', a style of teaching which encourages students to be active participants in their learning.

Before they participated in the class, the students answered questions from an abridged version of the Force Concept Inventory while undergoing fMRI. The Force Concept Inventory is a test that assesses knowledge of physics concepts often taught in early university physics classes.

After the volunteer students completed their physics course, they again took the Force Concept Inventory, once more monitored by fMRI.

In the pre-instruction scans, parts of the brain associated with attention, working memory and problem solving – the lateral prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex, sometimes called the brain's ‘central executive network’ – showed activity.

After the subjects had completed their class, comparison of the pre- and post-learning scans revealed increased activity in the posterior cingulate cortex, which is linked to episodic memory and self-referential thought.

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.

One of the aims of the study was to further explore how the form of teaching used, Modeling Instruction, encourages students to use their own mental models to understand new concepts.

Physics is a conduit to studying mental modelling in the brain as it deals with things that people have direct experience with, the experiment also showed the brain's activity can be modified by different forms of instruction.


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