I win, you lose: Brain imaging reveals how we learn from our competitors

Oct 13, 2010
Our neural activity tends to be stimulated by our competitor's errors (as in the example shown here) rather than their successes. Credit: Dr. Paul Howard-Jones and Dr. Rafal Bogacz

Learning from competitors is a critically important form of learning for animals and humans. A new study has used brain imaging to reveal how people and animals learn from failure and success.

The team from Bristol University led by Dr Paul Howard-Jones, Senior Lecturer in Education in the Graduate School of Education and Dr Rafal Bogacz, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, scanned the brains of players as they battled against an artificial opponent in a .

In the game, each player took turns with the computer to select one of four boxes whose payouts were simulating the ebb and flow of natural food sources.

Players were able to learn from their own successful selections but those of their competitor failed completely to increase their . Instead, it was their competitor's unexpected failures that generated this additional . Such failures generated both reward signals in the brains of the players, and learning signals in regions involved with inhibiting response. This suggests that we benefit from our competitors' failures by learning to inhibit the actions that lead to them.

This region of the mirror neuron system in the player's motor cortex increased its activity when the player made moves and also when they observed their computer opponent making the same "virtual" moves -- even though they knew it was a computer. Credit: Dr. Paul Howard-Jones and Dr. Rafal Bogacz

Surprisingly, when players were observing their competitor make selections, the players' brains were activated as if they were performing these actions themselves. Such 'mirror neuron' activities occur when we observe the actions of other humans but here the players knew their opponent was just a computer and no animated graphics were used. Previously, it has been suggested that the mirror neuron system supports a type of unconscious mind-reading that helps us, for example, judge others' intentions.

Dr Howard-Jones added: "We were surprised to see the mirror neuron system activating in response to a computer. If the human brain can respond as though a computer has a mind, that's probably good news for those wishing to use the computer as a teacher."

Explore further: Neurons in human skin perform advanced calculations

More information: The findings of the study are revealed in a paper published online by the journal – NeuroImage.

Related Stories

Effects of brain exercise depend on opponent

Feb 04, 2009

Playing games against a computer activates different brain areas from those activated when playing against a human opponent. Research published in the open access journal BMC Neuroscience has shown that the belief that o ...

Perceived intentions influence brain response

Aug 11, 2010

People generally like to see generous people rewarded and selfish people punished. Now, new research reveals a critical link between how we perceive another's intentions and our evaluation of their behavior. The study, published ...

Why we learn more from our successes than our failures

Jul 29, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- If you've ever felt doomed to repeat your mistakes, researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory may have explained why: Brain cells may only learn from experience when we ...

Sporting Prowess Through Brain Power

Feb 09, 2010

A study conducted by scientists at Brunel University and at the University of Hong Kong has found that expert sportsmen are quicker to observe and react to their opponents' moves than novice players, exhibiting enhanced activation ...

Looking through the broken mirror

Oct 14, 2008

Researchers at The University of Nottingham are hoping to learn more about the causes of autism and Asperger's Syndrome, by putting a controversial theory to the test.

Recommended for you

Neurons in human skin perform advanced calculations

17 hours ago

Neurons in human skin perform advanced calculations, previously believed that only the brain could perform. This is according to a study from UmeƄ University in Sweden published in the journal Nature Ne ...

Memory in silent neurons

Aug 31, 2014

When we learn, we associate a sensory experience either with other stimuli or with a certain type of behavior. The neurons in the cerebral cortex that transmit the information modify the synaptic connections ...

Why your favourite song takes you down memory lane

Aug 28, 2014

Music triggers different functions of the brain, which helps explain why listening to a song you like might be enjoyable but a favourite song may plunge you into nostalgia, scientists said on Thursday.

User comments : 0