Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about what we do, start here.

Learning from Success

learning from success

We learn from our mistakes, right?

Well, not so fast. A new MIT study that sheds light on the brain's ability to change in response to learning.

In the July 30, 2009 issue of the journal Neuron, Earl K. Miller, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience, and MIT colleagues Mark Histed and Anitha Pasupathy have created for the first time a unique snapshot of the learning process that shows how single cells change their responses in real time as a result of information about what is the right action and what is the wrong one.

The research, done on monkeys, suggests that the brain neurons involved in learning may process information more effectively after a success than after a failure, which in turn leads to an improvement in behavior.

The study looked at neural changes in the monkeys' brains as they learned a specific task. The animals were shown pictures every few seconds and had to look either left or right depending on the image they saw. They learned by trial-and-error which image was associated with looking in a particular direction, and they were rewarded if they chose correctly.

The researchers monitored neurons in the monkey's prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia — two areas of the brain thought to be involved in learning. They found that neurons in these brain areas are indeed important for learning — they “keep track of recent successes and failures,” said Earl K. Miller, a researcher at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

But what surprised the researchers was that these neurons actually became more “finely tuned” after a correct response than after an incorrect response, meaning that the neurons were able to better distinguish between the two different associations that the monkey was learning.

“The neurons in these areas improve their tuning, they learn better when the animal had a recent success, versus when the animal had a failure,” Miller said. “When the animal had a failure, there was virtually no change in neural processing, the neurons didn’t improve at all.”

Read more about the study here and here.

Read why we learn from mistakes.