Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Training Your Inner Monkey

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.

A nice little article, but guess what? The article's conclusion is ridiculous:

Success has a much greater influence on the brain than failure...we might do well to pay more attention to [failures], consciously encouraging our brain to learn a little more from failure than it would by default.

That's some of the worst logic I've ever seen. To find worse logic than that, you have to get a teenager to read Plato. "You learn more from success than failure; therefore, pay more attention to failure." Or to rephrase again, "Your brain is bad at a particular type of activity; invest more of your energy and time in that activity."

Obviously, if you want to learn something, and the brain responds to failure without learning anything, but it responds to success by learning, then focusing on failure is not a good learning strategy.

But what should you do? Does this mean that, if you don't score a home run the first time at bat, then the people who do will learn more than you, and be at a huge advantage the next time you compete with them?

Yes, it does.

So if you don't score a home run your first time at bat, you're doomed?


The reason why not:

To learn, all you have to do is succeed.

Notice what that doesn't say. It doesn't say what you have to succeed at.

Let's say you're a tennis player. Somebody beats you at tennis. You revamp your tennis practice to focus on the tiny details of how you play. Why? Because you might not be able to win the games you want, but if you set yourself a tiny goal to win at serving, or to win at backhand form, or to win at aiming the ball, you can win there, and every time you win, you learn.

There's some powerful neuroscience supporting this and a great book which goes into exquisite detail. I have a blog post coming about that book. I'm aiming for tomorrow. It's a hell of a book, though, and it deserves more writing than I have time to finish at the moment, so for now I'm just going to leave you in suspense about it.