You Miss 100% of the Shots You Don't Take(Wayne Gretzky)
"Without mistakes, how would we know what we have to work on?" William James
Recall a time you said or did something incorrect in front of peers or authority figures. Now think of all the details you can recall associated with that experience. Where you were, who was there, any other things you wouldn't ordinarily remember about distant events such as what you wore, saw, did earlier or later that day. If you have a minute, write down some of these ancillary sensory memories.
What you recall now is the result of your dopamine-reward network and your flashbulb memory or event memory system. As the brain evolved for survival of the animal and the species, much of what we humans now do is directed by hard-wired neural networks and neurotransmitters not under conscious control. Actually only about 17% of your brain is capable of responding to your conscious will; the rest is pretty much like that of a lower mammal or newborn baby with reactions to input based on association with imminent danger, risk, or pleasure.
The Great News about Mistakes
Two things happened in your event-negativity response system when you made that embarrassing mistake. The abundance of detail you still associate with the memory relates to your primitive brain's limited ability to interpret strong negative emotion beyond "negative" and "strong". The brain learns, at the automatic, involuntary level to avoid threat to survival by storing more sensory input (like taking a photograph "flashbulb" making a sound recording) from those high threat moments as cues to prevent repeating the mistake. That means that without consciously trying to remember those other associated sights, sounds, etc. that come to mind when you recall the moment of your embarrassing mistake, these sensory details did reach the subcortical memory storage neural networks and remained.
For most things you construct in memory through active learning and practice, you need to maintain the neural networks that hold the information with periodic restimulation (review or practice - the Use it or Lose It phenomenon of neuroplasticity and pruning). However, the neural networks created by strong mistake memories and the associated sensory information you recall in association, are consciously and unconsciously relived and restimulated, and their neural tracts are particularly durable.
The good news is when you want to remember something, you can link it to other powerful emotional stimulants, and your brain will record it as a powerful flashbulb memory. For example, to remember someone's name, instead of just linking their name to something about their appearance, link it to a strong flashbulb or event memory that is already an established neural network. Big ears on person you meet can link to your embarrassing mistake of being overheard by your roommate when you said something negative about him/her to a classmate. Now link name of the new acquaintance with the big ears to something about their name you can relate to one of the details you recall about your roommate or room you shared. The new name now becomes part of one of your very durable memory tracts.
Did Your Mistake Memory Event Take Place When You Were Between 12 and 22?
How old were you when you made the mistake you recalled? I'll wager you were over age 12 and under 22. Can you even recall an embarrassing mistake you made before age ten or eleven? This is due to an age related heightened period of the way your brain responds to negative mistake feedback between the ages of about 12-22.
It is neuro-logical for survival that curiosity-motivated experimentation as a young child has low error negativity consequences. There was so much to learn about your world to promote self-preservation during your childhood, that your curiosity needed to persevere. In your young brain, positive reinforcement trumped mistake negativity so you'd keep exploring and experimenting to build your survival knowledge base.
Why Dogs Don't Keep Chasing Skunks
Dogs learn pretty quickly not to chase skunks and children rarely put their hands into fire more than once. Throughout your life, pleasurable feelings surge and negative feelings pervade related to dopamine levels in your brain. The dopamine-pleasure modulating reward center is the nucleus accumbens (NAc). Your brain learns what behavior to repeat in response to these dopamine fluctuations from the NAc.
In adolescence, when precision and accuracy in your predictions were ready for fine-tuning, things begin to change. The dopamine-pleasure modulating reward center in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) increases in mistake-reactivity starting about age 12 and it is not until about age 22 that it becomes stabilized against all but the most sudden or profound emotional shifts.
When Caution Trumps Curiosity
Between 12 and 22 when your NAc dopamine-reward center was at its highest sensitivity, it was extremely responsive in the amount of dopamine it released in response to positively (rewarding) or negatively (disappointing to devastating) perceived events during these years, resulting in strong, emotionally enhanced memories of your correct or incorrect behaviors or answers - especially your embarrassing public mistakes. Caution began to trump curiosity.
Something else takes place that increases mistake or error negativity during those teen years. At the same time the NAc is at its highest level of reactivity during the ages of 12 to 22 there is simultaneous increase reactivity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) areas of the brain responsible for conscious awareness and cognitive control.
From age 12 to 22, your prefrontal cortex was also at its highest state of reactivity to the drop in dopamine release by the NAc that occurred with mistake recognition. Your thinking brain (PFC) was more strongly activated by negative feedback and you became more restrained. You became more cautious about following your curiosity because you became aware that such actions could have negative consequences.
Your teen brain PFC had increased reactivity to even small fluctuations in dopamine levels largely due to your prefrontal cortex's incomplete maturation. Both the NAc and "conscious" brain (PFC) are among the last parts of the brain to mature (a function of neuroplasticity, pruning, and myelination). Your NAc in your teen years was most prone to high dopamine release to positive results from your actions, but also had high responsivity to negative results from your mistakes.
During these years of active change in the PFC, the dopamine-pleasure/negativity response became strongly linked to your developing PFC. There was still construction in your PFC of brain networks to remember and repeat (largely unconsciously) what you did or said that resulted in the rewarding release of dopamine. However, during these teen years, when you made the embarrassing mistake, your PFC was more responsive to the drop in dopamine release from the NAc. It responded with the construction of memory circuits to avoid making the same mistake in the future. You didn't make the mistake again because your NAc and PFC internalized the faulty prediction your brain made that resulted in the mistake. Because of your brain's heightened sensitivity and discomfort from drops in dopamine, the PFC altered the developing memory circuits so you'd make correct predictions in the future in light of the revised information revealed by your mistake.
These neural networks continue to be revised by mistakes throughout your life, but fortunately the strong emotional swings are less intense. Because of all you've experienced and learned, you have more developed neural circuitry and a larger information base. Your ability to predict and recognize the right thing to do or say is greater. Your mistakes are less outrageous, or at least less frequent (unless you are under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or intense life changes) and your mature PFC less irrational in its response to the mistakes you do make.
When you tell children that "you learn from your mistakes" and "unless your try and even fail you won't learn" you are right. And now you know why!
Dr. Judy Willis webpage www.RADTeach.com