Active nerve cellsIt has been long said that we learn from our failures. Neuroscience would argue with that. It might be splitting hairs, but when we fail, we learn what NOT to do. However, we don’t learn what to do. The basis of all learning for humans is repetition. It follows the old adage:  Neurons that fire together wire together. And the thicker the neurons become, the more likely the behavior becomes ingrained as a default behavior. That is learning.

Dopamine and norepinephrine are two neurotransmitters[1]  that activate when we learn something new and every time we are given feedback that what we are doing is correct, dopamine gives us a little jolt; “do it again” it says. Dopamine gives us that rewarding feeling to help us to keep on going.

Failures, on the other hand, have several things going against them. Failures don’t typically feel rewarding so we don’t want to repeat them. And if something we do is determined to be a failure, why would we continue to repeat it? That’s just insanity. We typically only repeat successes.

So, the next time you hear someone say “I learn most from my failures,” modify it in your mind to say “I learn what NOT to do from my failures…I learn most from what I repeat.”

[1] Carolyn W. Harley. Norepinephrine and Dopamine as Learning Signals. Neural plasticity 11, no. 3-4 (2004): 191-204.