No one wants to make a mistake, but new research suggests messing up might not be as terrible as we think.
An MRI study published in the journal Nature Communications found that making a mistake can feel good — if our brains are given a chance to learn from it.
Scientists conducted three trials: One that followed avoidance-based learning, another that followed reward-based learning, and a third that tested whether people learned from their mistakes. People who followed reward-based learning and were able to learn from their mistakes had activation in the brain’s “reward circuit” during the third test.
Study co-author Stefano Palminteri, PhD, a researcher at University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, tells Yahoo Health his findings are linked to avoiding punishment. If we make a mistake but have the opportunity to learn from it, that mistake is treated as a reward by our brains because we expected on some level to be punished for it.
But Palminteri’s research isn’t the first to show that there is a positive side to making an error and persevering through it. Here’s what else we know about the upside to making mistakes:
(Photo: Corbis Images/Jennifer Fox for Yahoo Health)
They Make You Smarter
People who see a mistake as a wake-up call and work to identify what went wrong end up faring better than those who just accept that they messed up, a 2011 study published in the journal Psychological Science discovered. Researchers found that those who quickly recovered from errors in an experiment and focused on their mistakes were less likely to make them again.
“Making mistakes allows us the opportunity to pay more attention and incorporate new information that will likely improve our learning and performance,” study author Jason S. Moser, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Health.
They Help You Learn Faster
Research published last year in the journal Science Express found that memories of mistakes we make while learning a new task help us pick up the task faster during subsequent attempts. Scientists also discovered that those mistakes train the brain to learn faster from the errors (not just the task), even when we make them while learning a completely different task.
They Give Your Memory a Boost
Making mistakes while you learn can benefit your memory and help you find the right answer down the road, according to research published earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. The only caveat, researchers found: Your guesses have to be close to the right answer. Those almost-correct answers can act as stepping stones for retrieving the right information later.
They Can Motivate You
A 2012 University of California, Berkeley, study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletinfound that students who were self-compassionate after failing a test (with phrases like “try not to be too hard on yourself” or “It’s common for students to have difficulty with tests like these”) were motivated to spend more time studying for their next test vs. students who just got an ego boost (“you must be intelligent if you got into Berkeley!”).
They Rewire Our Brains
Psychologists from the University of Exeter in the UK discovered that our brains have an “early warning signal” that helps us avoid repeating past mistakes. Researchers found that the mechanism reacts in just 0.1 seconds to things that have caused us to make a mistake in the past.
You Can Override Them
Research from Canada’s McMaster University found that repeatedly struggling to find a word that’s on the tip of your tongue can lead you to create a pattern of failure, making you more likely to make the same mistake again. But scientists also learned that you can override these mistakes by repeatedly finding the word you’re searching for (instead of continuously trying to think of it). Eventually, you won’t make the mistake at all.