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Blame Your Poorly Wired Brain If You Can't Learn from Your Mistakes

Update Date: Feb 27, 2013 04:55 PM EST

It's not your fault if you never learn from your mistakes. Blame your brain.

British researchers from the University of London wanted to understand why some people are better at learning from their mistakes than others.  They wanted to see what it is about the brain that separates a "good learner" from those who do not learn from past missteps.

Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya and his team studied whether participants were able to listen to feedback and improve their performance on a variety of tests.

The findings published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that the results varied significantly. 

The study involved measuring brainwave patterns of 36 health participants performing a simple time estimation task.  Participants were asked to estimate a time interval of 1.7 seconds.  Afterwards, they were given feedback on their errors. Researchers then looked at how well each participant incorporated the feedback to improve their future performances.

Researchers said that "good learners" who were successful in incorporating the feedback information in adjusting their future performance showed increased brain responses as fast as 200 milliseconds after the feedback on their performance was presented on a computer screen.

However, researchers found that this brain response was weaker in poor learners who could not perform the task well and who showed decreased responses to their performance errors.

Additional analyses revealed that food learners showed increased communication between brain areas involved with performance monitoring and other areas involved in motor processes.

"Good learners used the feedback not only to check their past performance, but also to adjust their next performance accordingly," Caroline Di Bernardi Luft, one of the research paper's co-authors from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, said in a statement.

Researchers found that the brain responses strongly correlated with how well the participants learned the tasks over the course of the experiment and how good they were at maintaining the learned skill without any guiding feedback.

"Though these results are very encouraging in establishing a correlation between brains responses and learning performance, future studies are needed to identify a causal role of these effects," Bhattacharya added.

"We are always told how important it is to learn from our errors, our experiences, but is this true? If so, then why do we all not learn from our experiences in the same way? It seems some people rarely do, even when they were informed of their errors in repeated attempts," he added.

"This study presents a first tantalizing insight into how our brain processes the performance feedback and what it does with this information, whether to learn from it or to brush it aside," Bhattacharya explained.

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