Skip to content

The value of mistakes

Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of living out of the ordinary. Today, I’m going to take the neuroscience a step further by applying it to learning environments. To review:

Neuroscience research demonstrates that when we break out of the routine and enjoy something new, our brains reward us with a dopamine flood.  We essentially give ourselves a pat – not on our head, but inside our head. If we continue to do the same thing over and over, the dopamine flood recedes and eventually dries up – the routine deadens the response.


The research shows that the same reward response – dopamine flood – is produced when we make mistakes and errors. Why? Because our brain is stimulated by surprise, by the unexpected. Our brains are built to detect errors; they really go nuts when something unpredictable occurs. We are immediately motivated by the dopamine surge to seek out new solutions and ways of understanding. As Stephen Hall says, “Success breeds habit and failure breeds learning.”

In a learning environment, this is an argument for the importance of actively engaging participants through a variety of methods – including learning from mistakes. The dopamine system fires in surprise not only at new information, but at any moment when information doesn’t fit our existing patterns of understanding. Our brains drive learning when we encounter the new and unexpected – and make mistakes.

In practice this demands that the facilitator or instructor be well-prepared. Pre-tests or pre-course surveys can stimulate participants brains with questions before the session begins. Dividing participants into small groups to brainstorm stories and ideas stimulates their thinking through encountering others’ patterns and solutions. Using a variety of media, activities, and props can make the experience memorable as brains sit up and take notice. When mistakes are made, use critical thinking questions and techniques to further stimulate the brain’s drive to make new connections.

What other ideas do you have about creating an environment that wires participants’ brains to learn?

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is really interesting! I especially loved Stephen Hall’s, “Success breeds habit and failure breeds learning.” quote.

    I have used a mini treasure hunt at the beginning of the session to stimulate participants’ thinking!

    August 10, 2010
    • friesengroup #

      The idea of doing something out of the ordinary at the start of a session or presentation is a good one. Thank you for your comment.

      August 11, 2010

Your comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: