It has long been discussed that paying attention to one’s successes has a positive impact on an individual and that a focus on our own or other’s shortcomings and failures is not helpful and has the potential for souring any relationship. But recent neuropsychological research at MIT is showing that success has a much greater influence on the brain than does failure.
Neuroscientists and psychologists have studied how the brain learns things for some time now. Have you ever skied and made a series of bad turns, and on another run, felt like you were making one well-constructed turn after another? Or gone bowling and had a number of strikes and spares in a row? It seems that there is more than just luck to good streaks and bad streaks. Neuroscientist Earl Miller who leads a team at MIT recently published an article (Neuron, July 30, 2009) discussing how single cells in the brain learn from positive and negative experiences. In an experiment involving training monkeys to make a choice, researchers found that successful choices caused the level of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, to soar in the monkeys’ brains, and that this then caused the monkeys’ performance to soar. On the other hand, if the monkey made a mistake, even after the monkey had clearly mastered the task, the monkey subsequently did not do better than chance on the next trial. It seems the monkeys’ brains learned far more and far more effectively from positive learning experiences, than from mistakes.
If we look at how we interact with important people in our life, we might ask ourselves how often do we applaud success in the way a hockey team surrounds a teammate who scores a goal, or a bowling team applauds a teammate who makes a strike? In these instances, brain cells register that we have done good, and with that pleasurable feeling, and a flood of dopamine in the brain, our mind tells us to keep doing whatever it is that we were doing that led to that success.
In our day to day lives, there are countless opportunities for us to focus upon ourselves, our achievements, and our successes, and in so doing, not only decrease neediness and feelings of needing to be applauded by others, but also increase the chances for our success to continue. Looking at our successes, no matter how irrelevant to others, can help us to work toward a larger goal. Moment to moment successes at work in the gym, or elsewhere, can segue into larger and broader feelings of self-worth. In the absence of positive feedback, we are vulnerable to negative thinking and more generalized negativity. This can lead to depression as well as have a souring effect on our relationships. Much the way we might tell a child who loses the playoffs to look at the friendships that he or she created throughout the season, we must find in ourselves and in those we love, the positive, the win, the place where some success resides.
In marriages, when needs are not being met, partners are often disappointing one another, and separation is growing amongst a husband and a wife, it becomes clear that little opportunity is present from which either husband or wife can gain the neurochemical momentum to promote the behaviors and affective expression that will allow pleasurable and desirable behaviors to continue. At such times, parties need to take a step back and actively seek out successes. We need to be open to the idea of promoting and applauding our spouse as the sine qua non of happy and successful relationships. It is important to remain mindful of trying to bring out the best in our partner. Meeting the needs of our partner can give both them and ourselves powerful feelings of satisfaction and that can then spiral in a positive direction that allows the relationship to blossom and flourish.
In our children, we need to find islands of competence in which we can applaud their successes. False applause is shallow and has little meaning to a child or teen who tends to pay little attention to what he or she experiences as false praise. But fostering an ability in a child, and then paying attention to those abilities, is a clear path to promoting our children and their self-image. In addition, Miller’s work at MIT sheds light on the neural mechanisms linking environmental feedback to neural plasticity, the brain’s ability to change in response to experience. As such, our attention to success has implications for understanding how we learn, and how we understand and treat children with learning disorders.