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See Inside November / December 2009

How You Learn More from Success Than Failure

The brain may not learn from its mistakes after all

Have you ever bowled a string of strikes that seems like it came out of nowhere? There might be more to such streaks than pure luck, according to a study that offers new clues as to how the brain learns from positive and negative experiences.

Training monkeys on a two-choice visual task, researchers found that the animals’ brains kept track of recent successes and failures. A correct answer had impressive effects: it improved neural processing and sent the monkeys’ performance soaring in the next trial. But if a monkey made a mistake in one trial, even after mastering the task, it performed around chance level in the next trial—in other words, it was thrown off by mistakes instead of learning from them.

“Success has a much greater influence on the brain than failure,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist Earl Miller, who led the research. He believes the findings apply to many aspects of daily life in which failures are left unpunished but achieve­ments are rewarded in one way or another—such as when your teammates cheer your strikes at the bowling lane. The pleasurable feeling that comes with the successes is brought about by a surge in the neurotransmitter dopamine. By telling brain cells when they have struck gold, the chemical apparently signals them to keep doing whatever they did that led to success. As for failures, Miller says, we might do well to pay more attention to them, consciously encouraging our brain to learn a little more from failure than it would by default.

Note: This story was originally published with the title "Why Success Breeds Success"

This article was originally published with the title "Why Success Breeds Success."

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