Enhancing Learning Through Getting Things Right

You’ve probably heard that “you learn from your mistakes” but a new study in the journal Neuron disputes this, finding that enhanced learning comes more from our successes than our failures.

Research on monkeys out of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that neurons of the brain involved in learning might process things more effectively after a success, leading to improved behavior.

The work, appearing in the July 30, 2009 issue of the journal looked at neural changes in the monkeys’ brains as they learned.

The monkeys were shown pictures on a computer screen every few seconds and had to look to the left or to the right, depending on the image. With trial-and-error the monkeys learned which image was associated with looking in one direction or the other.

They were rewarded for correct choices instead of being punished for incorrect answers, this being a more effective way to encourage learning.

The team monitored the neurons in the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia, both areas in the brain believed to be linked to learning.

Earlier work has shown that there’s some fleeting activity in this area when we learn, perhaps lasting a few milliseconds.

Not only did the Picower research confirm that these are key learning areas, serving to keep track of successes and failures. The work also found that neural signals associated with learning last longer than anyone suspected – perhaps several seconds.

What’s more, after getting a right answer, the researchers saw that the neurons in these learning areas of the monkeys’ brains became more “finely tuned”, processing information more effectively and better able to tell the difference between the two different associations being learned.

If the monkey failed at the task, the cells of the brain showed virtually no change. It was only after successes that the monkey’s brain processing and behavior improved.

The intriguing work offers us a snapshot of the learning process, showing how single cells change responses in real time based on information that tells them the right choice to make.

It’s a fascinating look into how our brains might use feedback from the environment to learn. “We have shown that brain cells keep track of whether recent behaviors were successful or not,” explains research leader Earl K. Miller, a neuroscientist and professor of neuroscience at Picower.

So does learning from our successes instead of our failures explain why we so often repeat mistakes? Perhaps. This study seems to dispute the results of earlier work that had supported the idea that we learn from our mistakes.

“In our study, the situation was a reward versus no reward, success versus the absence of success, but there’s some cases where mistakes can actually lead to very bad negative consequences, like a loss of money, or loss of a scholarship.

When the failure actually leads to a negative consequence rather than just the absence of a positive, that might engage learning mechanisms that rely on feedback from that negative consequence, so maybe it’s a different situation,” Miller explains.

More work will need to be done to understand the mechanisms for learning and what can be done to enhance learning. This may also lead to improvements in our understanding of learning disabilities and how to best treat them.