Thursday, February 11, 2010

Neuroplasticity, Monkeys, and Success

Success Gets into Your Head—and Changes It, by Scott Berinato, from the Jan-Feb 2010 issue of the HBR.

Success teaches us more than failures. So say the monkeys. Correct. Researchers did studies on monkeys, and came away with the conclusion that the brain learns more when it succeeds at a task than when it fails.

Ok seriously. What does the article say?
Neuroscientists have long understood that the brain can rewire itself in response to experience—a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity.

“Neurons in the prefrontal cortex and striatum, where the brain tracks success and failure, sharpened their tuning after success,” says Miller. What’s more, those changes lingered for several seconds, making brain activity more efficient the next time the monkey did the task.
Well - maybe. Consider the contrarian example: when you get an electric shock upon sticking your finger into a live socket, trust me, your brain is teaching you to avoid sticking appendages into any socket in the future. Prefrontal cortex, striatum, and every tex in the brain is teaching you the lesson.

Aha. But the researcher, Earl Miller, anticipated such smart-alec arguments:
Miller says this means that on a neurological level, success is actually a lot more informative than failure. If you get a reward, the brain remembers what it did right. But with failure (unless there is a clear negative consequence, like the shock a child feels when she sticks something in an electrical outlet), the brain isn’t sure what to store, so it doesn’t change at all.
So maybe the key to making the brain as good at learning from failures as from successes is to make consequences carry a clear, negative message. Hmm... maybe that's why some parents are so willing to use the stick than the carrot.

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.