When a cartoon character has an idea, a light bulb illuminates above his head—a metaphor for how a new thought just seems to click into existence in the human brain. Now neuroscientists at Carnegie Mellon University have captured the brain’s “eureka” moment on film for the first time, according to a study published recently in Human Brain Mapping.
The researchers taught 16 participants facts about the diet and habitat of eight extinct animals. While the participants learned, researchers took images of their brains using an fMRI. When a computer program analyzed the results, the researchers found that the brains of each participant activated in the same areas when learning each piece of new information, but each extinct animal looked different in participants’ brains—each had a unique “activation signature,” a telltale combination of activated brain regions.
For example, as study author Marcel Just told Wired, when participants in a previous study learned that the olinguito eats not meat but mostly fruit, their brains stored the information in several distinct areas.
The researchers also saw that the participants’ brains were able to store the information even after being taught something else. Studies like this one can help researchers better understand how the brain processes and stores information, which could help educators better tailor their lessons. But it could also shed light on brains that can no longer recall information, such as those with Alzheimer’s or dementia.