Minding Mistakes: How the Brain Monitors Errors and Learns from Goofs

From Scientific American:

Crayon April 26, 1986: During routine testing, reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explodes, triggering the worst catastrophe in the history of the civilian use of nuclear energy.

September 22, 2006: On a trial run, experimental maglev train Transrapid 08 plows into a maintenance vehicle at 125 mph near Lathen, Germany, spewing wreckage over hundreds of yards, killing 23 passengers and severely injuring 10 others.

Human error was behind both accidents. Of course, people make mistakes, both large and small, every day, and monitoring and fixing slipups is a regular part of life. Although people understandably would like to avoid serious errors, most goofs have a good side: they give the brain information about how to improve or fine-tune behavior. In fact, learning from mistakes is likely essential to the survival of our species.

In recent years researchers have identified a region of the brain called the medial frontal cortex that plays a central role in detecting mistakes and responding to them. These frontal neurons become active whenever people or monkeys change their behavior after the kind of negative feedback or diminished reward that results from errors.

Much of our ability to learn from flubs, the latest studies show, stems from the actions of the neurotransmitter dopamine. In fact, genetic variations that affect dopamine signaling may help explain differences between people in the extent to which they learn from past goofs. Meanwhile certain patterns of cerebral activity often foreshadow miscues, opening up the possibility of preventing blunders with portable devices that can detect error-prone brain states.

More here.