Why we learn from our mistakes

Jul 02, 2007

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 cliché 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.’

Source: University of Exeter

Explore further: Finding psychological insights through social media

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Intermediary neuron acts as synaptic cloaking device

Feb 26, 2015

Neuroscientists believe that the connectome, a map of each and every connection between the millions of neurons in the brain, will provide a blueprint that will allow them to link brain anatomy to brain function. ...

Bumblebees make false memories too

Feb 26, 2015

It's well known that our human memory can fail us. People can be forgetful, and they can sometimes also "remember" things incorrectly, with devastating consequences in the classroom, courtroom, and other ...

Spotify deals with random shuffle and us mortals

Feb 26, 2015

How do we mortals perceive random sequences? An entry in the question-and-answer site Quora focused on a question involving a music-streaming service Spotify. That question signifies how we perceive what ...

Neuroscientist takes scientific look at art of filmmaking

Feb 24, 2015

Why do so many of us cry at the movies? Why do we flinch when Rocky Balboa takes a punch, duck when the jet careens toward the tower in "Airplane," and tap our toes to the dance numbers in "Chicago" or "Moulin ...

Recommended for you

Finding psychological insights through social media

Feb 28, 2015

Social media has opened up a new digital world for psychology research. Four researchers will be discussing new methods of language analysis, and how social media can be leveraged to study personality, mental and physical ...

Aggressive boys tend to develop into physically stronger teens

Feb 27, 2015

Boys who show aggressive tendencies develop greater physical strength as teenagers than boys who are not aggressive, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Scienc ...

New app helps monitor depression

Feb 27, 2015

Scientists from the University of Birmingham have developed an app that can measure the activity patterns of patients with depression and provide the necessary support.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.