“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” said Thomas Edison. He was certainly successful in making that statement; a new MRI study has found that when the brain is able to learn from its mistakes, failure is actually a rewarding experience.
The study, by researchers from the University of Southern California, was published yesterday in the journal Nature Communications. Many scientists agree that there are two different learning styles: avoidance learning (when the brain trains itself to simply avoid actions that may lead to mistakes) and reward-based learning (when the brain feels rewarded for reaching the right answer).
The researchers sought to understand more about reward-based learning. “We show that, in certain circumstances, when we get enough information to contextualize the choices, then our brain essentially reaches towards the reinforcement mechanism instead of turning towards avoidance,” said Giorgio Coricelli, an author of the study.
The researchers recruited 28 study participants who were approximately 26 years of age. They underwent three rounds of questioning in which they received money for correct answers and lost money for wrong answers. The first and second rounds of questioning were designed to promote the different types of learning–avoidance and reward-based–respectively.
A third round allowed the participants to review their wrong answers, enabling them to understand where they went wrong. Using MRI, the researchers were able to see that this round activated the ventral striatum, the region of the brain known as the “reward circuit”.
Coricelli likened this process to the way humans change their behaviours after lamenting mistakes they have made in the past: “With regret, for instance, if you have done something wrong, then you might change your behaviour in the future,” he said.