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What Success Does for the Brain

November 11, 2009 07:30 AM
by Liz Colville
MIT researchers have shown that the brain appears to react more to success than failure, supporting previous evidence that we learn more from a positive outcome than a negative one.

Monkeys’ Brain Activity Shows Repercussions of Success

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Previous studies have shown that “family pets respond more to reward than punishment, and so do children,” writes Lee Dye for ABC News. But recent research conducted by Earl K. Miller, Anitha Pasupathy and Mark Histed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), shows that two parts of a monkey’s brain—the prefrontal cortex and the striatum—“keep track of recent successes and failures for many seconds, long enough for it to play a role in guiding the learning the next time an opportunity to learn comes up,” Miller said in an interview with ABC News. Studying such brain activity in humans would require planting an electrode in the brain, but monkeys’ brains are similar enough to humans to be worthy of study, Dye explains.

The researchers also found that “neural processing in the brain improves after a recent success and doesn't improve much after a recent failure,” Miller said. “That's quite new. No one has really shown that before.”

“[T]he neurons themselves retained a memory of the correct action, paving the way for continued success,” Dye explains.

But the researchers have yet to uncover more specifics, for instance, "How many neurons store a given memory?" Histed said. “How does the code work? Do patterns of activity across hundreds or thousands of neurons matter, or can we just study single neurons one by one? I would say most of the questions are unknown.”

Background: Studies on success, failure and the brain

LiveScience reported on a 2007 study by psychologists at the University of Exeter that helps explain why—and how—people learn from mistakes. “[F]or the first time we’ve established just how quickly the brain works to help us avoid repeating errors,” lead author Andy Wills told LiveScience. His team “monitored the brain activity of a group of volunteers as they made predictions based on information each read on a computer screen. Then, they were given new information that made many of the predictions incorrect.” The volunteers had to “learn from the mistake in order to repeat the error next time.”

Monitoring the temporal area of the brain (near the temple), the researchers found that brain activity “increased immediately after the individual saw the new information flash onto the computer screen—within 0.1 seconds—before there was time for any conscious consideration.” The researchers called this an "early warning signal" from the brain.

Sports can provide a wealth of data on how the brain treats success and failure. In an article in the NCAA’s Champion Magazine, Michelle Brutlag Hosick takes a look at a study by psychology professor Mario Liotti. Liotti and his team examined magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brains of swimmers who failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympic team. The scans were recorded while the swimmers watched videos of their failed qualifying races.

Liotti “found that a region of the brain that plans future actions (the pre-motor cortex) appeared inhibited when the elite athletes saw themselves “lose,” Hosick writes.

But endorphins, which are “stimulated by exercise alone and heightened when accompanied by experiences like winning or a spectacular performance,” create “ephemeral” reactions in the brain. Sometimes, losing—or just focusing less on the result of a performance—is what creates the “big character-development payoffs,” Hosick suggests, such as “life-long lessons about sportsmanship, fair play, personal responsibility and constant self-improvement.”

Related Topic: Focusing on effort, rather than success vs. failure

On a psychological level, a black-and-white emphasis on success and failure can be detrimental to learning, studies show. Carol S. Dweck wrote for Scientific American in 2007 that a “growth mind-set,” in which effort is emphasized over success and failure, “produces high achievers in school and in life.” Thus, parents should praise their children “for their effort or persistence,” Dweck says. An “an overemphasis on intellect or talent,” she explains, “leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.”
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