Saturday, January 20, 2007

How do you "learn from mistakes without making them"?

In a fascinating article in Time, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert (author of Stumbling on Happiness) and his colleague Randy Buckner say you can "learn from mistakes without making them". And it is made possible by what they call the "dark network" in your brain -- that part of the brain that lights up when you "do nothing" and switches off when you "do something". Here's the key quote:

Animals learn by trial and error, and the smarter they are, the fewer trials they need. Traveling backward buys us many trials for the price of one, but traveling forward allows us to dispense with trials entirely. Just as pilots practice flying in flight simulators, the rest of us practice living in life simulators, and our ability to simulate future courses of action and preview their consequences enables us to learn from mistakes without making them. We don't need to bake a liver cupcake to find out that it is a stunningly bad idea; simply imagining it is punishment enough. The same is true for insulting the boss and misplacing the children. We may not heed the warnings that prospection provides, but at least we aren't surprised when we wake up with a hangover or when our waists and our inseams swap sizes. The dark network allows us to visit the future, but not just any future. When we contemplate futures that don't include us--Will the NASDAQ be up next week? Will Hillary run in 2008?--the dark network is quiet. Only when we move ourselves through time does it come alive.