How Failure Makes Us Stronger

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck analyzes how the brain treats failure.

By Joe Kita from Reader's Digest | May 2009

Plus:
5 Winners Teach Us How to Learn From Failure
How to Make Up Your Mind to Succeed
Slideshow: 4 Ways to Follow Your Dreams

New research is pinpointing how we learn and make decisions. To the brain, a new thought or idea is like a spider. If it is industrious enough, an intricate web of knowledge spins out from it. Snapshots of the brain taken during learning actually show neurons firing, growing, and forming new connections. This is fascinating in itself, but what’s even more fascinating is that failure can trigger this.

That’s right, failure can enhance your brain.

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has tracked and compared the brain waves of subjects with growth and fixed mind-sets. (see “Make Up Your Mind to Succeed“). When those with growth mind-sets fail at a task, she detects them entering a more focused mental state as they try to figure out their mistake. And in subsequent trials, they improve. In effect, they’ve learned, and their brains have “grown.” Those with fixed mind-sets, however, never enter this focused state of learning and show little, if any, advancement.

Antoine Bechara, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, has taken Dweck’s work a step further. He recently isolated two equally sized centers in the prefrontal cortex, one that he claims is responsible for the fear of failure and the other for the lure of success. It is between these, he says, that the debate between risk and reward occurs. Not unlike the metaphoric devil and angel on our shoulders, these areas interact during the decision-making process. Although more research is needed, these centers may turn out to be the physical locations for Dweck’s twin mind-sets.

“We always knew people could learn from their mistakes, but now we’re finding out exactly how and where this happens,” explains Bechara. “Basically, it all comes down to survival. In a normally functioning brain, failure is welcomed as an opportunity for learning and strengthening the species.”