What "Oops!" Moments Look Like in Your Brain

                The adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks belittles the cognitive powers of the brain.  We’re finding out every day how flexible and adaptable the brain really is, and our understanding of its complex functions is growing at an exponential rate.

                In fact, the brain is so powerful that we’re learning how it can generalize and specialize within the same second; and that matters when you’re learning new tasks or trying to develop new skills!

                Recent research from Cedars-Sinai’s Neural Science dives deep into what it really takes the brain to learn and successfully complete a goal.  One of the ways the brain is able to accomplish an ongoing feedback loop—because just like any high-tech computer, it’s only as good as its ability to self-detect problems and adjust as needed for best results.

                This is completely self-directed feedback, like an “oops!” moment that you recognize was a mistake, and you can both remember it and take steps to avoid it in the future.  That’s more than just your conscience kicking in or trying to avoid a social faux-pas:  it’s called performance monitoring, and it’s just one of the ways your brain is amazing.

                When your brain is busy and recognizes a mistake was made, it takes two different types of neurons to get the performance monitoring process initiated.  Right after the mistake was made, specific neurons fire to say “hey, there was an error here,” while other neurons fire to alert the brain of conflict, respective to how difficult the task at hand was which caused the mistakes.

                Both types of neurons only become active right after a decision or action has been taken.  They are seen activating during cognitive performance tests in the medial front cortex.  What really stands out is that there are two kinds of performance monitoring happening simultaneously which bring awareness and neuronal activation in domain general and domain specific contexts.  Monitoring performance in domain general alerts the brain that an error was made but doesn’t differentiate what the brain or body was doing when the error occurred. 

                That’s where domain specific performance monitoring comes in, and it tells the brain exactly what caused the error.  This hones skill development over time, while domain general performance monitoring allows someone to take skills from one task and apply them to a completely different task with very little direction.

                The next time you catch yourself making a mistake or transitioning from one task to another you can thank your brain for delivering a real-time performance report!


Further Reading

Zhongzheng Fu, Danielle Beam, Jeffrey M. Chung, et. al. The geometry of domain-general performance monitoring in the human medial frontal cortex. Science, 2022; 376 (6593) DOI: 10.1126/science.abm9922

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

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