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In the news ... Why we learn more from our
successes than our failures
MIT study sheds light on the brain’s ability
to change in response to learning
If you've ever felt doomed to repeat your mistakes,
researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and
Memory may have explained why: Brain cells may only
learn from experience when we do something right and not when
In Neuron, Earl K. Miller, the Picower Professor of
Neuroscience, and MIT colleagues Mark Histed and Anitha
Pasupathy have created for the first time a unique snapshot of
the learning process that shows how single cells change their
responses in real time as a result of information about what
is the right action and what is the wrong one.
"We have shown that brain cells keep track of whether
recent behaviors were successful or not," Miller said.
Furthermore, when a behavior was successful, cells became more
finely tuned to what the animal was learning. After a failure,
there was little or no change in the brain — nor was there any
improvement in behavior.
The study sheds light on the neural mechanisms linking
environmental feedback to neural plasticity — the
brain's ability to change in response to experience. It has
implications for understanding how we learn, and
understanding and treating learning disorders.
Monkeys were given the task of looking at two alternating
images on a computer screen. For one picture, the animal was
rewarded when it shifted its gaze to the right; for another
picture it was supposed to look left. The monkeys used trial
and error to figure out which images cued which movements.
The researchers found that whether the animals' answers were
right or wrong, signals within certain parts of their brains
"resonated" with the repercussions of their answers for
several seconds. The neural activity following a correct
answer and a reward helped the monkeys do better on the trial
that popped up a few seconds later.
"If the monkey just got a correct answer, a signal lingered in
its brain that said, 'You did the right thing.' Right after a
correct answer, neurons processed information more sharply and
effectively, and the monkey was more likely to get the next
answer correct as well," Miller said, "But after an error
there was no improvement. In other words, only after
successes, not failures, did brain processing and the monkeys'
The prefrontal cortex orchestrates thoughts and actions in
accordance with internal goals while the basal ganglia are
associated with motor control, cognition and emotions. This
work shows that these two brain areas, long suspected to play
key roles in learning and memory, have full information
available to them to do all the neural computations necessary
The prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia, extensively connected
with each other and with the rest of the brain, are thought to
help us learn abstract associations by generating brief neural
signals when a response is correct or incorrect. But
researchers never understood how this transient activity,
which fades in less than a second, influenced actions that
In this study, the researchers found activity in many neurons
within both brain regions that reflected the delivery or
withholding of a reward lasted for several seconds, until the
next trial. Single neurons in both areas conveyed strong,
sustained outcome information for four to six seconds,
spanning the entire time frame between trials.
Response selectivity was stronger on a given trial if the
previous trial had been rewarded and weaker if the previous
trial was an error. This occurred whether the animal was just
learning the association or was already good at it.
After a correct response, the electrical impulses coming from
neurons in each of the brain areas was more robust and
conveyed more information. "The signal-to-noise ratio improved
in both brain regions," Miller said. "The heightened response
led to them being more likely to get the next trial correct,
too. This explains on a neural level why we seem to learn
more from our successes than our failures."
Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT 29 07
Internet Press Office
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