neuroscience: learning from other people’s mistakes

It appears there’s a reason why watching someone fumble a ball or give the wrong answer on “Jeopardy” can be so annoying. Dutch researchers report in the May issue of Nature Neuroscience that people’s brains react the same way, whether they’re actually making an error or just observing someone erring. Hein van Schie of the University of Nijmegen and colleagues measured the electrical activity of volunteers’ brains as the subjects performed a simple task. The participants had to look at an arrow that appeared briefly on a computer screen, then judge in which direction it was pointing. After each test, the volunteers were told whether they were right or not. When a person realized he or she had made a mistake, a distinctive electrical signal from a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex was recorded, but the researchers found that they got the same brain signal even from people who simply watched the person make the mistake during the same task. The authors hope the finding will help shed light on how we learn from observing our own and others’ mistakes, since, after all, “errors are crucial for learning and adjusting future behavior.”

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 5/04/2004.
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