Learning from mistakes

People often say that you "learn from your mistakes" and scientists have suggested that the reason lies in the element of surprise at finding out we were wrong on in having to suffer the consequences of your mistake. This is aided by the fact that for most of us the emotions of annoyance and self-criticism that occur when we realise we have made a mistake are far stronger than the positive emotions that are associated with doing something right.

Until recently, the way in which the brain manages mistakes has been something of a mystery. When we learn something new the way in which the brain remembers whatever it is that you learnt is by effectively re-wiring itself through a process known as "neural plasticity". This makes the brain very good at doing the same thing again and again, which is why we tend to become "set in our ways" as we get older. Learning from mistakes is therefore far more complex than carrying on in the same way as before as your brain needs to modify itself.

In the past it was thought that learning from mistakes involves us in analysing what went wrong before developing a new approach - a process that requires conscious thought and which relies heavily on the cerebral part of the brain. But a recent study has found that we can learn from errors subconsciously.

Psychologists at the University of Exeter monitored brain activity during exercises based on information supplied to the participants via a compute screen, with the same computer being used to monitor their responses. The participants were then given new information that made many of their previous answers incorrect - they had to learn from those mistakes to ensure that they did not repeat the error next time round. The scientists were looking at activity in the lower temporal region of the brain, near the temples, the area responsible for processing visual information. By monitoring brain activity as it occurred, they were able to identify the exact moment the new learning kicked in.

Within one tenth of a second of the new information being flashed onto the screen, before there was time for any conscious consideration, the researchers found that brain activity increased in these lower regions of the brain. It was only after this that the frontal lobes of the brain - the areas associated with planning, analysis and conscious decision making - became active.

The conclusion was that this lower region of the brain provides an "early warning signal" that helps us avoid repeating previous mistakes.

As an example of how this early warning process may help us, imagine that you are on holiday in America and travelling in a hire car. In the states you are allowed to turn right even if the traffic lights are red. If you fail to turn right therefore it is likely that you will get hooted at by the car behind. Professor Willis, who led the study, suggests that after failing to turn right once, this early warning mechanism will subconsciously alert us to the previous error when we next approach a red light with the intention of turning right.

Published May 2009

< Back to list