Why We Learn From Our Mistakes
Psychologists from the University of Exeter have identified an
'early warning signal' in the brain that helps us avoid repeating
previous mistakes. Published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience,
their research identifies, for the first time, a mechanism in
the brain that reacts in just 0.1 seconds to things that have
resulted in us making errors in the past.
Previous research has shown that we learn more about things for
which we initially make incorrect predictions than for things
for which our initial predictions are correct. The element of
surprise in discovering we are wrong is conducive to learning,
but this research is the first to show how amazingly rapid our
brain"s response can be. This discovery was made possible through
the use of electrophysiological recordings, which allow researchers
to detect processes in the brain at the instant they occur.
"It's a bit of a cliche to say that we learn more from our
mistakes than our successes," said psychologist Professor
Andy Wills of the University of Exeter, "but for the first
time we've established just how quickly the brain works to help
us avoid repeating errors. By monitoring activity in the brain
as it occurs, we were able to identify the moment at which this
mechanism kicks in."
For this study, a group of volunteers took part in a computerised
task, which involved them making predictions based on information
they were given. New information was then introduced, which made
many of their predictions incorrect, so they needed to learn from
this in order to avoid repeating the error. While they did this,
their brain activity was recorded via 58 electrodes placed on
their scalp. The researchers identified activity in the lower
temporal region of the brain, the area closest to the temples.
This occurred almost immediately after the person was presented
with the visual object that had previously made them make an error,
and before there was time for conscious consideration.
Most previous research in this field has focused on the frontal
lobes of the brain, which are the areas associated with sophisticated
human thought processes such as planning, analysis and conscious
decision-making. The lower temporal region of the brain, which
was the focus for this activity, is responsible for the recognition
of visual objects.
"This brain signal could help us in many different kinds of
situations," said Professor Wills. "For example, when driving
abroad the rules of the road sometimes differ. We may make a mistake
the first time we misinterpret a situation, for example not realising
that in the States cars can turn right on a red light. The next
time we"re driving out there and see a red light, this early
warning signal will immediately alert us to our previous mistake
to prevent us from repeating it."