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Our brain is constantly working to learn from our mistakes

In a new study from the University of Iowa, researchers have unveiled fascinating insights into how the human brain processes mistakes and learns from them. The research marks a significant advancement in our understanding of cognitive processes.

The study, led by Professor Jan Wessel in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, reveals that the brain can, within a mere second, differentiate between outcomes caused by human error and those for which a person is not directly responsible. 

This capability is a testament to the intricate and rapid processing power of the human mind.

Rapid error recognition 

The experts found that when the brain identifies an outcome as resulting from a human error, it engages in additional processes to catalog this error and communicate it to the body. This reaction is crucial in preventing the repetition of the same mistake. 

“The novel aspect about this study is the brain can very quickly distinguish whether an undesirable outcome is due to a (human) error, or due to something else,” explained Professor Wessel. “If the brain realizes an error was the cause, it will then start additional processes to avoid further errors, which it won’t do if the outcome wasn’t due to its own action.”

How the research was conducted 

The research team used an innovative approach, involving 76 young adults in a task where they identified the direction of arrows displayed on a screen. 

Occasionally, unexpected symbols appeared, simulating surprise outcomes. These symbols were unrelated to the participant’s performance, offering a contrast to instances of human error. Brain responses were measured at intervals of 350, 1,700, and 3,000 milliseconds. 

Critical insights

The key finding was the brain’s ability to distinguish between standard and surprise outcomes in about one second. 

Furthermore, in cases of human error, the brain remained active for an additional two to three seconds, signifying a learning process taking place.

“When it is something that has to do with my own action and I can do something about it, then the brain takes a few seconds to reconfigure the entire cognitive apparatus, the visual system, the motor system,” said Professor Wessel. 

“It’s as if the brain is taking a moment to fill in the rest of the body, the senses, the motor control, to tell the other working parts, ‘Let’s not do this again.’”

The brain’s adaptive response

The researchers also monitored brain waves through scalp electroencephalograms (EEGs). The data revealed distinct, ongoing neural activity specific to instances of human error. 

“Indeed, we found that while both errors and unexpected outcomes of correct actions led to comparable neural activity early on, only errors showed reliable, sustained brain activity more than a second after the response,” said Wessel.

Error detection system 

This study contradicts previous beliefs that the brain reacts similarly to outcomes, regardless of their cause. “Some have argued that we don’t actually have a genuine error detection system in the brain,” said Professor Wessel.

But the research establishes that the brain does indeed differentiate between errors and other outcomes, effectively communicating this information throughout the body for adaptive responses.

“All in all, this shows that we do have genuine, error-specific systems in the human brain that detect our action errors that trigger adaptive responses, such as the strategic slowing of ongoing actions,” Wessel said. 

Study implications 

This study not only sheds light on the human brain’s remarkable ability to recognize and learn from errors but also opens avenues for further research in cognitive science and neuroscience. It underscores the complexity and adaptability of the human mind in its continuous pursuit of accuracy and efficiency.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The findings are published in the journal JNeurosci.

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