This kind of learning, known as observational learning, offers a major evolutionary advantage, says Kay Tye, an MIT associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences and a member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.
"So much of what we learn day-to-day is through observation," she says. "Especially for something that is going to potentially hurt or kill you, you could imagine that the cost of learning it first-hand is very high. The ability to learn it through observation is extremely adaptive, and gives a major advantage for survival."
Tye and her colleagues at MIT have now identified the brain circuit that is required for this kind of learning. This circuit, which is distinct from the brain network used to learn from firsthand experiences, relies on input from a part of the brain responsible for interpreting social cues.
Former MD/PhD student Stephen Allsop, along with Romy Wichmann, Fergil Mills, and Anthony Burgos-Robles co-led this study, which appears in the May 31 issue of Cell.