Perfecting Errors

A AW

We’re human. That’s why we don’t always learn from our mistakes. We make the same mistakes time and time again, no matter how mindful we are and how determined we are not to. We all do it. In the end all we succeed in doing is to perfect our errors.

Psychologists already understand the processes involved – mistakes cause our brains to pause and take stock, but then quickly slide back into the same patterns and thus behaviours. However, psychologists have now discovered this pause can lead to conflicting advice when it comes to making future decisions.

During the pause, the brain collates additional information in an attempt to prevent us repeating the same mistake. But at the same time, it reduces the quality of what it learns in its scramble to collect as much new information as possible.

These two actions cancel each other out and limit our ability to make a better decision next time. So, the pause which is supposed to assist the brain collate new knowledge can also lead to conflicting advice.

We already know that humans often slow down after mistakes, a phenomenon called Post-Error Slowing (PES) but until now, the neurological processes that occur with PES were not understood.

During a series of tests carried out at New York University, groups of monkeys and humans watched dots moving on a computer screen and then tried to decide which direction they would end up travelling in by gazing in that direction (a large proportion of dots moving to the right caused the group to look to the right.) The researchers then made the movements more erratic to make it more difficult to determine the direction.

Both humans and monkeys displayed strikingly similar behaviour. After making mistakes, both slowed down the decision-making process and the rate of slowing was directly linked to the difficulty of the decision. This suggests the brain needs more time to assimilate more information. However, the overall accuracy of their choices didn’t improve, an indication that the quality of accumulated sensory information was lower.

The following is published in the journal Neuron:

Brain activity observed in the monkeys while they performed the task sheds light on what is happening in the brain. The research analysed neural responses from a region of the parietal cortex involved in gathering information. During decision making, the activity in these neurons increased at a rate that depended on the quality of evidence they could collect.  

After mistakes, the exact same motion stimulus produced slower neural activity. This was consistent with impaired quality of sensory evidence gathering. 

Critically however, the neurons showed a significant increase in how much information was accumulated before a decision, preventing a reduction in the overall accuracy, and that a combination of changes in the brain slow us down after mistakes.

In other words, the brain gathers more information for the decision to prevent repeating the same mistake again. A second change reduces the quality of information we obtain, which reduces the likelihood we will make an accurate choice.

The researchers explain that because the two processes cancel each other out, the deliberative approach we take to avoid repeating a mistake neither enhances nor diminishes the likelihood we’ll repeat it.

People with ADHD or schizophrenia often do not slow down after errors and this has been interpreted as an impaired ability to self-monitor behaviour. Results suggest that this absence of slowing may reflect much more fundamental changes in underlying decision making brain networks.

Another recent study examined the relationship between indecision and the complexity of mixed emotions. Some people see mixed emotions as something undesirable and a sign of moral weakness. But, people who experience mixed emotions are better able to differentiate between them and live their lives in an emotionally happy and balanced way.

A healthy dose of Mindfulness might come in useful.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.