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See Inside October/November 2007

Mom Was Right

So you goofed...

We learn more from our mistakes than from our successes, the old cliché says—and now scientists know why. Researchers at the University of Exeter in England discovered a brain mechanism that alerts us to situations in which we previously went wrong.

In the study, students playing physicians had to diagnose a fictitious disease based on images from equally fictitious blood samples. When participants saw images that had previously led them to an erroneous diagnosis, warning signals in the brain appeared only a tenth of a second later—much more quickly than did signals triggered by images that had resulted in a correct diagnosis. Earlier studies had confirmed that slipups do indeed result in better learning, but this one is the first to show the brain's specific reaction to a prior blunder.

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