Jun 3, 2011

Why some people don't seem to learn from their mistakes?

This is a 2007 article
[i]nability to learn from one's mistakes may indeed be at the root of a broad range of human problems, ranging from childhood bullying and truancy to aggressive acts like road rage to all manner of substance abuse. And this cognitive aberration, deep-wired into the neurons and genes, may even underlie the vagaries of normal human behavior and personality.
A while back, psychologists discovered a new and very faint electrical signal coming from the brain, specifically from a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. This particular conglomeration of neurons is important, because it appears to light up when we are faced with especially demanding mental tasks. Moreover, the recently discovered brain signal appears to peak just milliseconds after we have made a mistake, suggesting that in the normal brain it plays a role in anticipating, spotting and correcting errors. In other words, it's the neurological engine that let us learn from our mistakes. 
Psychologist Jason Hall and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota decided to explore this perplexing psychology in the laboratory. They wanted to see if perhaps people who are destructively impulsive actually fail to detect their mistakes in the ordinary way—and therefore repeat them. The scientists started by giving an elaborate psychological examination to more than 1,600 subjects, measuring a constellation of traits like irresponsibility, boredom, rebelliousness and alienation. They also queried the subjects about their drug and alcohol use and their criminal records, including instances of theft and fraud. 
When Hall and his colleagues watched the subjects' brains in action, they got some interesting results. As reported in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science, the subjects who were most impulsive and antisocial had EEGs that were quite different from those who were low on these traits. Specifically, the electrical pulse associated with error monitoring was much lower in this group, and it was lower immediately after the subjects erred on a test item, suggesting that the brain's normal response to making mistakes was malfunctioning. 
Scientists have not worked out all the neurology yet, but one theory about this electrical pulse is that it is somehow sending messages to several distinct brain regions, perhaps through the neurotransmitter dopamine. These structures, in turn, are responsible not only for monitoring and correcting immediate errors but also for enhancing cognitive control long term. Or not, depending on the potency of the signal. It appears that those with a sputtering electrical generator just keep making the same mental and emotional slips again and again.
Probably in the near future to better understand poverty and socio-economic development economists and other social scientists will need to pay close attention to the neurological basis of learning from mistakes.  

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