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How we learn from others’ mistakes

Experiments show that the brain reacts in a similar way whether an observer makes a mistake or watches someone else make it.
/ Source: Reuters

Why is it so annoying to watch someone else make a mistake? Maybe because it affects the same areas of the brain as when a person makes his or her own mistake, Dutch researchers said on Monday.

Experiments in which volunteers tried a computer task and then watched each other do the same thing showed the brain reacted in a similar way whether the observer made the mistake, or watched someone else make it.

Writing in the May issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, the team at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands said their findings help shed light on how human beings learn by watching one another.

For their experiment, Hein van Schie and colleagues hooked up 16 men and women to electrodes to measure brain activity and then sat them in front of a display screen with a joystick. The task was simple — to move the joystick in the same direction as certain arrows appearing on the screen.

“Participants were instructed to respond both quickly and accurately in the direction of the center arrowhead,” Van Schie and colleagues wrote.

After each trial, the volunteers were told whether they were correct.

When people realized they had made an error, a distinctive electrical signal arose from a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex.

The same thing happened when the volunteers watched other volunteers try the experiment and make the occasional mistake, the researchers found.

“These data suggest that similar neural mechanisms are involved in monitoring one’s own actions and the actions of others,” they concluded.