The human brain learns in two ways: via avoidance learning, which trains it to avoid mistakes, or by reward-based learning, which reinforces and encourages something that is correct.

Scientists now claim that mistakes can also be rewarding, especially if the brain sees it as a learning opportunity to assess its options. Hence, it might be right to believe that failure is the best teacher.

How Brain Learns

It has long been understood that the brain learns and adapts using two distinct techniques. The first is avoidance learning – punishing a negative experience or mistake that trains the brain not to repeat it again. The second is reward-based learning – positively reinforcing an experience for which the brain feels rewarded, such as a correct answer.

USC, along with a group of international researchers, used MRI to conclude that the brain also learns from mistakes and failures by turning them into positive, valuable experiences.

“Under certain circumstances, when we have sufficient information to contextualize our choices, the brain primarily reaches towards the reinforcement mechanism, rather than turning toward avoidance”, explained Giorgio Coricelli, Associate Professor of Economics and Psychology at USC Dornsife.

Study: Could Mistakes Be Rewarding?

Researchers enrolled 28 participants, around the ages of 26, and gave them a set of questions. The challenge was to get as many correct answers as they could. If they answered incorrectly, they lost money; a right answer meant money was gained.

One trail prompted the brains to react to getting an answer wrong, via avoidance learning. In a second trial, the reward-based learning mechanism was prompted and a third separate trial tested if the participants had learned from their mistakes by reviewing and understanding their errors.

In the third trial, the participants responded positively. This activated certain regions of the brain known as the ventral striatum or ‘reward circuits’ that mimic the brain’s reward-based learning response rather than the avoidance-learning regions known as the ‘anterior insula’.

Conclusions:There Is Some Good In Making Mistakes

The study was published recently in the journal Nature Communications. Researchers said that the process was similar to what happens when the brain experiences feelings of regret.

“With regret, for example, if you have done something wrong, you might change your behavior in the future”, said Coricelli.