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The Brain Swiftly Identifies Human Error

A graphic of a human brain.
Credit: iStock.
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When a person makes a mistake, what happens in their brain? It’s an intriguing line of scientific inquiry for neuroscientists. After all, in life we’re often told that “it’s okay to make mistakes, so long as you learn from them.”

What does this process of “learning” look like in the brain? Previous research has suggested that the brain is able to recognize when human error has occurred. But whether or not the brain’s reaction to an outcome is the same, or different, if that outcome is due to human error, hasn’t been all that clear.

"Some have argued that we don't actually have a genuine error detection system in the brain,” says Dr. Jan Wessel, professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa. Wessel is the corresponding author of a new study that explored the brain’s capacity to distinguish human error from a non-self–inflicted error. The research is published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

The brain takes one second to distinguish between standard and surprise outcomes

When an error occurs it often causes people to slow down their actions, a process known as post-error slowing, or PES. Does PES reflect controlled processing in the brain, or is it a side effect of an error causing a “surprise”? This was the key question for Wessel and colleagues.

“In the current study, we used electroencephalogram decoding and a novel behavioral paradigm to test whether there are indeed unique, error-specific processes that contribute to PES beyond domain-general surprise,” the authors explain.

The Iowa researchers recruited 76 young adults to the study, who were asked to partake in a simple task. They had to look at a cluster of arrows and select the correct direction for one of the specific arrows. When they answered correctly, a triangle would appear on the screen.

Participants selected the correct answer almost every time, due to the ease of the task. To mimic a “surprise” or “unexpected outcome” the researchers would switch up the symbol choice, using a frog, a helicopter or an anchor, even when the participants answered correctly.

At 3 time points – 350, 1,700 and 3,000 milliseconds – Wessel and colleagues measured the brain’s response to the triangle (the standard outcome), or a different symbol (the surprise outcome). They found that the brain could distinguish between the standard and surprise outcome after approximately ~one second.

The brain “takes a moment” when human error occurs

If a person’s error was the cause for the surprise outcome, the brain remained active for an additional two to three seconds. “If the brain realizes an error was the cause, it will then start additional processes to avoid further errors, which it won't do if the outcome wasn't due to its own action,” explains Wessel.

“We found that while both errors and unexpected outcomes of correct actions led to comparable neural activity early on, only errors showed reliable, sustained brain activity more than a second after the response,” he adds.

Wessel describes the brain as almost “taking a moment” to communicate with the rest of the body, such as the motor control and the sensory systems, to say “let’s not do this again.”

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“All in all, this shows that we do have genuine, error-specific systems in the human brain that detect our action errors that trigger adaptive responses, such as the strategic slowing of ongoing actions,” Wessel concludes.

Reference: Yoojeong Choo, Alec Mather, Jan R. Wessel. Early action error processing is due to domain-general surprise, whereas later processing is error specific. J Neurosci. 2023;43(45):7678. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1334-23.2023

This article is a rework of a press release issued by Iowa University. Material has been edited for length and content.