Making mistakes is part of everyday life, but until recently, the brain-based mechanisms behind human success and failure were poorly understood.

Scientists who make great discoveries have anecdotally reported that their ideas were simply “sudden flashes of mystical insight.” This is not an adequate explanation for U of T neuroscientist Kevin Dunbar. He has made modern-day scientists his subjects, and learned the heart of these “magical discoveries” likely lies in the science of everyday reasoning, such as making mistakes.

Dunbar uses what he’s coined “in-vivo scientific reasoning” to study scientists while they work. He spent years documenting various laboratories at Stanford University, following professors and post-docs with video cameras, tape recording their meetings, and sifting through and dissecting numerous lab journals. His initial findings were staggering: over half of scientists’ research findings are unexpected results.

Scientists like to use causal reasoning when designing and interpreting studies: A + B = C, but what happens when A + B = D? Dunbar found that certain researchers simply threw out this seemingly erroneous data, while others recognized the anomaly as something special to be further investigated.

Dunbar saw that some of the deeper investigations into these unexpected results led to significant scientific discoveries in areas such as genetic mapping and stem cell research. So why did some scientists pay attention to the mistakes, while others did not? He has now taken these “in-vivo” results back to the lab to investigate the brain-based mechanisms involved in scientific thinking.

Dunbar recently illustrated the malleability of the human brain: how a person frames information determines which part of the brain processes that data, and whether it is stored or disregarded. His innovative experiments involve showing subjects a video where one ball travels towards another and the second ball moves without the first ball hitting it. The first time the subjects are shown the video they are to imagine that they are viewing billiard balls and to say if the first ball “caused” the second ball to move, which is usually accurately interpreted as being false.

Dunbar then changes the story and tells subjects to watch the video assuming that they are watching two positively charged particles, and to determine if the balls’ behaviour is plausible. Dunbar and colleagues Fugelsang and Roser found that regions in the right superior frontal and inferior parietal cortices were recruited when subjects watched the video the first time. However, when subjects thought they were looking at positively charged particles, homologous regions in the left frontal and parietal cortices were recruited in concert with those in the right hemisphere. What does this mean? The ways that we frame problems radically change not only our interpretations of events, but also the regions of the brain that are used.

In another set of experiments, Dunbar and Fugelsang presented to students short movies of falling balls, in which two balls fell at the same time. Sometimes the movies consisted of two balls of the same size falling at the same rate, while others had the bigger ball falling faster than the smaller ball, or the bigger ball falling at the same rate as the smaller ball. Physics students learn that the two balls should fall at the same rate, irrespective of size. But students without a physics education believed the bigger ball fell faster than the smaller ball, which researchers termed the “naïve theory.” For non-physics students, the two balls falling at the same rate is anomalous—a mistake. For these students, there was an increased firing in their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) as their brains acknowledged the “mistake.” However, for the physics students, the opposite pattern occurred: students had an increased firing in the ACC when the bigger ball falls faster than the smaller ball.

The ACC is the area of the brain known to detect mistakes when processing information. Part of the ACC’s role is to block mistakes from ever making it to the regions of the brain responsible for creating memories. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is involved in motor control, various cognitive processes including decision making and reasoning, and is a pathway involved in memory storage.

In another set of studies, Fugelsang and Dunbar found that when students received information that was inconsistent with their preferred theories, there was also activation of the ACC. These findings demonstrate that the mind has built-in mechanisms for dealing with apparently false information that prevents this information from ever being stored on the brain’s hard drive. This evidence falls contrary to the common belief that humans are empirical thinkers; it appears that more often we live by preconceived notions that we continually attempt to substantiate.

It appears that our brains are programmed to view information in a certain manner. “Changing the context can change the way [we] scientifically reason,” says Dunbar. This research has demonstrated that altering the frame through which we view information changes how the brain interprets and uses this information.

And what about the “magical scientific discoveries”? They seem to be not so much magical but dependent on the individual who considers the mistake or anomaly, and how they interpret it. Dunbar’s research may change the way laboratories function, as it’s apparently no longer ideal for great minds to all think alike. Instead, as stated by Dunbar, people collaborating in laboratories will be most effective if they come from “different backgrounds, and pool their knowledge.”