Make a Mistake? You Grew Your Brain.

June 6, 2021

Make a Mistake? You Grew Your Brain.

May 29, 2023

Andrew Huberman may be the most celebrated neuroscientist in the world. If not, he’s definitely the most listened-to, evidenced by this Stanford professor’s extremely popular podcast. It was recommended to me by Eduardo Briceno, Carol Dweck’s (“Mindset”) protege and a friend of MEA.

In one particular podcast, "Using Failures, Movement & Balance to Learn Faster,” Huberman offers a novel theory that our brain grows more when we fail and learn from that failure, especially after age 25. He explains that the brain is incredibly plastic from about birth until about age 25, and passive experience shapes the brain simply because of the way that the neurons are arranged, along with the way chemicals in the brain slosh around. Huberman says that the brain's job is to customize itself in response to its experience, and that somewhere around age 25, there's a kind of tapering off of plasticity, which means you now need different mechanisms to engage neuroplasticity as an adult. Are you with me? Because here is where it gets interesting.

One new signal that generates this plasticity is the making of errors (also known as failing). Failures signal to the nervous system that something is not working, which creates a shift in our brain. This is so fundamentally important to the way people learn (especially as they get older). Most people think practice is going to give them access to a beginner's mind, which will in turn yield positive results. Theoretically, this is a great concept. Unfortunately, many adults get frustrated too quickly, and often quit before they see results.

It’s happened to all of us. You’re learning Spanish, trying to pick up guitar, or keep up as a neophyte yogini, and in short order, you get frustrated that you’re not as good as you thought you might be. You think your errors (failings) are a problem. You don't realize that the errors themselves are signaling to the brain and nervous system that something's not working. When you start to approximate the correct behavior just a little bit (getting just a little bit more right), the brain releases neurochemicals, namely epinephrine and acetylcholine, and also dopamine when you’re improving. In short, our mistakes are the doorway for neuroplasticity and for learning.

Huberman says, "Now you can start to appreciate why it is that continuing to drill into a process to the point of frustration but then staying with that process for a little bit longer is the most important thing for adult learning...What we’ve found is that the adult nervous system can tolerate smaller and smaller errors over time but that you can stack those errors so that you can get a lot of plasticity. Put simply, incremental learning as an adult is absolutely essential as you are not going to get massive improvements like you do as an adolescent, so how you make and process small errors is the secret to learning as an adult.”

In other words, go out and learn to juggle, or dance, or take up pottery! Become a beginner again, without having to be an expert. Better yet, emulate your kids who tend to “do, then learn” instead of the adults’ approach: "learn, then do.”

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