Benjamin Franklin was no brain scientist. He was a keen observer of human behavior, and of the natural world, but he was a couple centuries too early to explore the intricate neuronal interplay of physics and biochemistry that makes us the people we are: healthy, wise, quirky, self-destructive. So, when he famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” this 18th-century polymath was really being more intuitive than rigorously scientific.
Yet it looks like he got it right. New neuro-psychological research is now suggesting that the inability 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. (It’s important in the wake of the tragic events at Virginia Tech to emphasize that this column is not about such deeply disturbed psychology.)
The research starts with electricity, appropriately enough. 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.
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