Expertise in electric circuits relies on brain areas involved in inhibition

Masson, S., Potvin, P., & Riopel, M. (2011, June 4). Expertise in electric circuits relies on brain areas involved in inhibition. Poster presented at the Third Conference of the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES), Catamaran Resort, United States, San Diego, CA. url:

Students often have erroneous and persistent conceptions about electric circuits that are a real challenge for science teachers. We used fMRI to identify the brain mechanisms underlying conceptual change in electricity. To do so, we asked 12 experts (physics students who achieved a conceptual change) and 11 novices (humanities’ students who did not) to evaluate the correctness of simple electric circuits in a fMRI scan. When they evaluate electric circuits related to a common misconception (a single wire is sufficient to light a bulb), experts show greater activations than novices in many regions, including the anterior cingulate cortex, the medial frontal gyrus and regions of the prefrontal cortex. Since these brain regions are usually activated in inhibition tasks such as Stroop, Go/No-Go, Hayling and Counting Stroop, experts seem to rely primarily on inhibition networks when they evaluate these "naive circuits". This could mean that experts have not changed their naive conception and have to inhibit it to answer correctly. Consequently, our data do not support conceptual change models postulating that conceptions are transformed into something else after a conceptual change. However, our data are compatible with conceptual change models that postulate that conceptions are built with cognitive resources that still exist after a conceptual change, or with models that postulate a cohabitation of conceptions. For science teaching, it could mean that teachers should try to develop students’ capacity of inhibition rather than trying to eradicate or fundamentally transform students’ misconceptions.