How Failure Can Build Neural Pathways

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Sometimes in college you’re required to take courses you’d never otherwise think to study.  That was me with educational psychology.  You know what?  I’m so glad I was forced to expand my horizons.  Every week I’m learning something intensely interesting and completely new.

This week the subject was how we learn.  It delved into different areas of psychology, but the one that really caught my attention was how our brains build neurological pathways to increase how much and which kind of knowledge our brains can hold.
Until recently, scientists thought we were born with all the synaptic connections we would ever have.  It was only possible to lose these connections via pruning, and impossible to build new ones.  But recent studies have revealed that this hypothesis was incorrect.  When we’re kids, we have way too many synapses.  They’re all waiting to be stimulated, and the ones that are will stick around.  But the ones that aren’t will be pruned.  This is called the experience-expectant process.
What’s even more amazing is that as adults, we have the ability to continue building these synapses through a process labelled experience-dependent.  The incredible part of this process is that it actually requires failure. When we are introduced to something we do not understand or are incapable of processing, our neurons start firing and creating new pathways.  If we continue to try in the area we have failed in, we will build new pathways in our brain, increasing our capabilities to learn in that area.  If we face failure and give up, those new synapses will be pruned.
Academic Applications
Sometimes as adults, when we face material that’s too unfamiliar or challenging we quit.  We drop the course.  We change majors.  We don’t have someone there pushing us like we did in first grade telling us that we can do it.  That if we won’t do it, we’ll simply have to repeat a grade.  We are able to give ourselves permission to quit, so we do.  We are denying ourselves knowledge, growth and the ability we truly do have to succeed.  We’re pruning ourselves rather than expanding all the ways we could succeed.
Beyond the Classroom
It can be scary sometimes when we’re out in the real world to try new things; to take on new risks.  The biggest thing blocking our way is our fear of failure.  When we understand how our brains work, that being unsuccessful at something is simply the first step to building those synapses and mastering it, suddenly that fear is allowed to dissipate.  The next time you find yourself staring the prospect of failure in the face, tell it to BRING IT ON.

21 thoughts on “How Failure Can Build Neural Pathways

  1. Metamorphocity

    That’s fascinating! As an optimist, I usually try to look at failures as learning experiences but this frames that in a whole new and more concrete way. I like that there’s a scientific reason to keep trying.

    1. femmefrugality

      Absolutely! That’s the real beauty of the whole process. Most of these synapses you are born with. You don’t use them so they are pruned. Then later in life, when you attempt to do something that you never have before (which is why they were pruned,) you can BUILD that synapse. A good but simple example is sound discernment and production in different languages (like the soft and hard shhh in Russian that I can’t tell apart, but apparently has a pretty obvious difference to most Russians.

  2. The Frugal Cottage

    Huh. I really needed to hear this today. Glad to be reminded that failure is just a pathway to growth and a richer (brainwise) future. Thanks 🙂 I just read an incredibly fascinating book that talked about how new synapses are built? connected? when one becomes a mother, and you start learning all sorts of new things at an accelerated pace. So the moral of the story I guess, is have kids, and fail a lot, lol.

  3. Shannon @ The Heavy Purse

    Fascinating read, but it makes sense when you think about it. When I think about times I’ve failed (I dislike that word even if it’s accurate!), I’ve had two choices: give up or figure out a way to make it work. It makes sense that when I chose to find a solution that it creates new synapses. Now I can feel better when I fail – I’m just making myself smarter!

  4. Mo Money Mo Houses

    Great post! I had no idea. I guess that idiom “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” can be thrown out the window then.

    1. Mitchell Pauly

      I have been having trouble getting the comments to work, apparently it is working now. Great article and topic. I was hoorendous at math growing up but now think in terms of numbers naturally, all because I wanted to be well versed and capable in a financial sense. It was, and continues to be, hard work… and now I know the biology behind my learning.

    2. femmefrugality

      Yay! I’m so glad it’s working again! Much to my chagrin I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Let me know if it happens again. That’s such a great example! I think after reading Ms. S’s and your comments, I’m going to have to do some research on how areas of natural talent/frustration come into play in this whole equation…

  5. Ms. S

    So if I just keep at it my artictic synapses will develop? It’s the one thing I wish I were good at. Well, maybe not the only thing but I’d start there!

    1. femmefrugality

      That is such a great question! I’m sure the more time you spend on it the easier it would become. But it does seem like some people are naturally born with artistic abilities while some of us…struggle. Haha. That’s me. I’ll have to do some research on that and get back to you all on that one.

  6. Pingback: Failure = Opportunity - Femme Frugality

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