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Behavioral Science, Neuroscience, Research

Why memories of mistakes may speed up learning

Why memories of mistakes may speed up learning

mistake_learningRemember when you burnt the crab cakes on one side while testing a new recipe for a dinner party and had to compensate by generously dressing them with a creamy sauce? What about the time you were introduced to a friend’s new girlfriend, whose name was somewhat similar to the last one, and you called her the wrong name? Or that accidental trip down a one-way street while in an unfamiliar city? Chances are you didn’t make these mistakes twice.

Now findings (subscription required) published today in Science Express may explain how memories of past errors speed learning of subsequent similar tasks. As explained in a release, scientists have known that when performing a task, the brain records small differences between expectation and reality and uses this information to improve next time. For example, if you’re learning how to drive a car the first time you may press down on the accelerator harder than necessary when shifting from the break pedal. Your brain notes this and next time you press down with a lighter touch. The scientific term for this is “prediction errors,” and the process of learning is largely unconscious. What’s surprising about this latest study is “that not only do such errors train the brain to better perform a specific task, but they also teach it how to learn faster from errors, even when those errors are encountered in a completely different task. In this way, the brain can generalize from one task to another by keeping a memory of the errors.”

To arrive at this conclusion, researchers used a  simple set of experiments where volunteers were placed in front of joystick that was hidden under a screen. More from the release:

Volunteers couldn’t see the joystick, but it was represented on the screen as a blue dot. A target was represented by a red dot, and as volunteers moved the joystick toward it, the blue dot could be programmed to move slightly off-kilter from where they pointed it, creating an error. Participants then adjusted their movement to compensate for the off-kilter movement and, after a few more trials, smoothly guided the joystick to its target. In the study, the movement of the blue dot was rotated to the left or the right by larger or smaller amounts until it was a full 30 degrees off from the joystick’s movement. The research team found that volunteers responded more quickly to smaller errors that pushed them consistently in one direction and less to larger errors and those that went in the opposite direction of other feedback.

Daofen Chen, PhD, a program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, commented on the significance of the findings saying, “This study represents a significant step toward understanding how we learn a motor skill … The results may improve movement rehabilitation strategies for the many who have suffered strokes and other neuromotor injuries.”

Previously: Depression, lifestyle choices shown to adversely affect memory across age groups, Newly identified protein helps explain how exercise boosts brain health and Exercise may protect aging brain from memory loss following infection
Photo by Grace

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