Sunday, March 27, 2011

How Can We Best Learn from Failure?

“Neuroscientists have long understood that the brain can rewire itself in response to experience – a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. But until recently, they didn’t know what causes gray matter to become plastic, that is, to begin changing. Breakthrough research by a team at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, led by Earl Miller has documented one type of environmental feedback that triggers plasticity - Success. Equally important and somewhat surprising - its opposite, Failure, has no impact,” (cited in Berinato, S., 2010, p.28).

The research by Earl Miller and his team at MIT showed that “neutrons in the prefrontal cortex and striatum, where the brain tracks success and failure, sharpened their tuning after success. What’s more is that those changes lingered for several seconds, making brain activity more efficient the next time the same task was completed. Thereafter, each success was processed more efficiently.”

But most importantly Miller found that “after failure, there was little change in brain activity, meaning that the brain didn’t store any information about what went wrong, to use the next time around.”

So Miller’s research shows that “on a neurological level, success is actually a lot more informative than failure. If you get a reward, the brain remembers what it did right. But with failure (unless there is a clear negative consequence, like the pain a child feels when they touch a hot stove), then the brain isn’t sure what to store, so it doesn’t change at all,” (cited in Berinato, S., 2010, p.28).

Miller’s research is fascinating in that it shows that there has to be a consequence to failure for the brain to react. This can give an insight to parents, teachers, managers, and even law makers, as to why some individuals don’t seem to learn from their mistakes. At the business level a lot more research will have to be completed before we can fully understand the complexities of the brain and how to maximise the brains ability to learn from failure.

In general many people don’t seem to like talking about failure, to the extent that some people remove the word from their vocabulary completely – not wanting to talk about failure, but preferring to talk about opportunities or other ‘positively framed’ words. This is especially true in the parent child relationship, yet this research by MIT may prove that this positive reframing may be the worst thing you can do and in fact hinder learning from mistakes. It might show that highlighting and discussing failure allows the brain to ‘understand’ the mistake and to learn from it – similar to putting your hand on a hot stove.

This research should be a reminder to organisations that unless the employee can ‘see and feel’ a consequence to ‘failure in a task,’ however slight that failure might be, it cannot be assumed that the individual has learnt from the mistake - meaning that failed tasks should be discussed and formally reviewed so that ‘real’ lessons can be learnt. We cannot assume anymore that simply saying, “okay but don’t make that mistake again” will in fact have any impact on the individual, regardless of age or position.

Understanding the complex brain functions used in business requires the ability to record activity in several regions of the brain simultaneously, and Miller’s team is being credited with pushing the technology further than any other research group. Miller has collected data from three regions of the brain at the same time with as many as fifty electrodes. That number will increase, as neurologists use more and more electrodes to record brain activity, they will gain much more insight into decision making and attention. In a report in The New Scientist, autumn 2009, Miller’s research was cited as “the tool of the future.”

So, as Scott Berinato explains, the lesson is to know that the brain will learn from success and hence you don’t need to dwell on it too much from a learning perspective. However you do need to pay much more attention to failures and challenge yourself to understand why you failed, if you want to ensure learning for the next time.

This fascinating research may help us to further develop our business talent, accepting that failure does happen and learning how best to deal with it.


Berinato, S. (2010). Success Gets into Your Head – and Changes It. Harvard Business Review. Vol. 88, Issue. 1, p.28.


  1. Very interesting. There is much research that shows that managers/leaders should concentrate on the employees strengths in performance appraisals. More and better change occurs. When weaknesses are focused on no progress is made.
    But when a mistake is made it should be dealt with immediately, and with clarity and exactness. Not sugar coating, beating around the bush or meanness and degrading.

  2. excellent list. One of the things that used to drive me crazy as a reader was a business/information blog with no dates on the post.
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