It’s Your Brain’s Fault You Make The Same Mistakes Over and Over

Already-created neural pathways make it hard to correct our mistakes going forward.

Buster Keaton never learned
Image source: giphy

Okay, this is getting confusing. First we didn't want to make mistakes. Then we realized mistakes are great teachers since they provide us lessons we wouldn't think to learn on purpose—I actually told my five-year-old this last week. And now The Atlantic reports that recent research suggests that mistakes are really hard to keep from repeating. So they're not good. Again.


It has to do with neural pathways that get created as we do things. When we do something right, a pathway is created. Unfortunately, a pathway is also created when we something wrong. We basically build habits this way, both good and bad. So the reason we keep making the same mistakes is that we slip by default back into existing neural pathways.

It's the same phenomenon that means you can only get somewhere by getting lost the same way you did last time, or that you keep putting things down in the same spot until they seem to be lost when in fact they're just underneath the most recent thing you put down.

More significantly, this happens with bigger screwups, like being attracted to the wrong kind of person or other misguided decisions you habitually make. It seems our brains do learn from making mistakes: They learn how to make them.

So—and here's where we contradict everything we thought we knew—it's best not to try and learn from past mistakes because remembering them when we want a do-over encourages our brains to head back down the previous pathway. It's better to think about what we want to accomplish and try to view it from a fresh angle that can lead us down a more successful road. That's a neural pathway you'll happily travel.

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Credit: Jean-David Moreau et al./J. Vertebr. Paleontol.
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Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain
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