Scientists have long understood that the brain has two ways of learning.
One is avoidance learning which is a punishing, negative experience that trains the brain to avoid repeating mistakes.
The other is reward-based learning, a positive, reinforcing experience in which the brain feels rewarded for reaching the right answer.
“We show that in certain circumstances, when we get enough information to contextualise the choices, then our brain essentially reaches towards the reinforcement mechanism, instead of turning toward avoidance,” explained Giorgio Coricelli, associate professor of economics and psychology at University of Southern California.
For the study, researchers engaged 28 young people in a series of questions that challenged them to maximise their gains by providing the right answers.
If they chose a wrong answer, they lost money, while right answers helped them earn money.
One trial prompted their brains to respond to getting the wrong answer with avoidance learning.
A second trial prompted a reward-based learning reaction and a third trial tested whether participants had learned from their mistakes.
In that third round, the participants responded positively, activating areas in their brains that some scientists call the “reward circuit”.
This experience mimicked the brain’s reward-based learning response – as opposed to an avoidance-learning response.
This process is similar to what the brain experiences when feeling regret:
“With regret, for instance, if you have done something wrong, then you might change your behaviour in the future,” the authors noted in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications.