Credit: Sang Wan Lee/Caltech
By Science Daily
Most of the time, we learn only gradually, incrementally building connections between actions or events and outcomes. But there are exceptions–every once in a while, something happens and we immediately learn to associate that stimulus with a result. For example, maybe you have had bad service at a store once and sworn that you will never shop there again.
This type of one-shot learning is more than handy when it comes to survival–think of an animal quickly learning to avoid a type of poisonous berry. In that case, jumping to the conclusion that the fruit was to blame for a bout of illness might help the animal steer clear of the same danger in the future. On the other hand, quickly drawing connections despite a lack of evidence can also lead to misattributions and superstitions; for example, you might blame a new food you tried for an illness when in fact it was harmless, or you might begin to believe that if you do not eat your usual meal, you will get sick.
Scientists have long suspected that one-shot learning involves a different brain system than gradual learning, but could not explain what triggers this rapid learning or how the brain decides which mode to use at any one time.
Now Caltech scientists have discovered that uncertainty in terms of the causal relationship–whether an outcome is actually caused by a particular stimulus–is the main factor in determining whether or not rapid learning occurs. They say that the more uncertainty there is about the causal relationship, the more likely it is that one-shot learning will take place. When that uncertainty is high, they suggest, you need to be more focused in order to learn the relationship between stimulus and outcome.