A new study, conducted at Bristol University and led by the faculty’s Dr Paul Howard-Jones and Dr Rafal Bogacz, used brain imaging to look at how people andanimals learn from failure and success.
The researchers scanned the brains of humans as they battled against an artificial opponent in a computer game. The game was about keeping natural food sources ticking over, and picking the right box to achieve that goal.
The brain scans showed that while players learned from their own successes, shown by an increase of neural activity, they had very little reaction to the artificial opponent’s win. But when the competitor fluffed his go, and failed the task, the brain activity jumped back up.
When their opponent messed up, players experienced responses in both the reward and learning signals in their brain, suggesting that we take notice of our competitor’sfailures, and also learn from the actions that led to them, to avoid making similar mistakes in future.
The study also looked at “mirror neuron” activity. When observing, the players’ brains are activated by their competitor’s moves, as if they’re performing the actions themselves. It was previously suggested that the mirrorneuron system was unique in human to human interaction, but here the players knew they were battling a computer.
“We were surprised to see the mirror neuron system activating in response to a computer,” said Dr Howard-Jones. “If the human brain can respond as though a computer has a mind, that’s probably good news for those wishing to use the computer as a teacher.”