Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Why don't people learn from their mistakes?

Newsweek has an interesting piece by Wray Herbert, who has the blog We're Only Human ...

Oops, I Did It Again

Benjamin Franklin was no brain scientist. He was a keen observer of human behavior, and of the natural world, but he was a couple centuries too early to explore the intricate neuronal interplay of physics and biochemistry that makes us the people we are: healthy, wise, quirky, self-destructive. So, when he famously defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results," this 18th-century polymath was really being more intuitive than rigorously scientific.

Yet it looks like he got it right. New neuropsychological research is now suggesting that the inability to learn from one's mistakes may indeed be at the root of a broad range of human problems, ranging from childhood bullying and truancy to aggressive acts like road rage to all manner of substance abuse. And this cognitive aberration, deep-wired into the neurons and genes, may even underlie the vagaries of normal human behavior and personality. (It's important in the wake of the tragic events at Virginia Tech to emphasize that this column is not about such deeply disturbed psychology.)

I'm glad that he pointed out that inability to learn from mistakes are only related to milder types of problems, and not the stronger type of problems with causes the headlines in the newspapers.

Now, for the background for the research.

The research starts with electricity, appropriately enough. A while back, psychologists discovered a new and very faint electrical signal coming from the brain, specifically from a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. This particular conglomeration of neurons is important, because it appears to light up when we are faced with especially demanding mental tasks. Moreover, the recently discovered brain signal appears to peak just milliseconds after we have made a mistake, suggesting that in the normal brain it plays a role in anticipating, spotting and correcting errors. In other words, it's the neurological engine that let us learn from our mistakes.

Psychologists call this electrical pulse ERN, for "error related negativity," but the neurological jargon is not all that important. What's important is that an abnormal pulsation may be the neurobiological underpinning for a serious cognitive deficit, which in turn may lead to a host of pathologies related to lack of impulse control.

I wasn't aware of this feature in our brain, but that's hardly surprising, since I don't follow neuro-science that closely.

The study that Herbert is writing about, found that people who showed signs of having the highest impulsivity and antisocial behavior, had the least activity in the ERN.

I always find it great when newsmagazines like Newsweek brings a good article about science, that actually explains the theory and thinking behind it.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I always thought that us humans were the most advanced species on this planet, and we are, compared to every other species! But when I observe the behavior of others just when I go out in public, and even as I learn about the terrible mistakes that others make, I can see that we have a LONG way to go with our civilization.

July 05, 2011 8:23 AM  

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