September 08, 2009
Brain Mistake Signal Stronger In Better Academic Performers

The error-related negativity (ERN) signal is stronger when better students make mistakes.

In the first study ever to link academic performance to a neural signal, participants performed a Stroop task a well-known test of cognitive control while hooked up to EEG electrodes that measured their brain activity.

U of T researchers monitored a brain signal known as the error-related negativity (ERN) in each participant's brain while they completed the task. ERN signals are observed approximately 100 milliseconds after a mistake is made, and are involved in cognitive control and self-regulation. Large ERN signals indicate a participant is responding strongly when they've made a mistake; smaller ERN signals indicate they are less responsive to their mistakes.

The researchers then compared the size of each participant's ERN signals to their official university transcript grades.

"Those students with larger ERN signals did significantly better in school, showing that these neural signals have important real world implications," says doctoral researcher Jacob Hirsh.

Did higher academic performers do better only because their brains could recognize more mistakes? Or did they also do better because their brains more loudly signaled a mistake? Could a lower performing person improve their performance by listening more carefully to their doubts?

I'd like to know how strongly the ERN signal's strength correlates with IQ. Does use of ERN signal in combination with IQ predict academic performance more accurately than using either of these measures alone? Not surprisingly, half the ERN signal's strength is down to your genes.

Because the size of the ERN is only 50 per cent determined by genetics, though, Hirsh says students may be able to improve their ERN signals by attending to their mistakes, thereby helping to improve their academic performance. "The ERN is not set in stone," he says.

It is not obvious to me that most people can become better at recognizing when they've made mistakes.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 September 08 11:44 PM  Brain Performance


Comments
jb said at September 9, 2009 5:18 AM:

I hate making mistakes. Throughout grade school, college and early professional life, I felt miserable whenever I screwed up, even a little bit. and I was a pretty good performer overall.

However, it also made me very risk adverse. I was unwilling to try new things, unwilling to stretch myself. Eventually, I had to start letting go of my hatred of mistakes in many cases, because it was hurting me more than it helped.

Basically, these days, I only feel bad when I screw up when it's something I should already know. If I make a mistake at something I don't know well, I try to let it slide. Not always easy.

TheBigHenry said at September 9, 2009 5:52 AM:

I made a mistake once. Back in '76 I thought I was wrong about something.

Joseph said at September 9, 2009 7:32 AM:

I'm skeptical that improving people's ERN could actually improve their performance. It seems plausible that the better performers react more strongly to their mistakes because they're not as accustomed to making mistakes. The people who do more poorly, have gotten used to making many mistakes. Making them more sensitive to their own errors may not reduce the number of errors they make in academic performance, but just make them more upset with those errors, and make them more unhappy with themselves.

Ted said at September 10, 2009 12:11 PM:

That's funny because textbook authors certainly don't have high ERN. But be a subset.

Matthew said at September 14, 2009 5:33 PM:

Thanks! This is a great article to summarize for credit at UTD to meet their research requirement. At my school I have the option of summarizing two papers or sitting or spend 30 minutes to an hr. 'volunteering' for research.

*cough*

I've done about 15 hours of free research so far, and that is pretty typical of cognitive science majors...I would shudder at the amount of free labor they get off of psych. majors.

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