Medial frontal cortical neurons code errors made by others

Learning from the errors of others’ is one of the most fundamental of cognitive abilities, as so well captured by the phrase “The wise learn by the mistakes of others, fools by their own”. There is neuroimaging evidence pointing to medial frontal cortical areas as a candidate region that makes it possible to learn from the mistakes of others, however, there have been a number of open questions, including the precise loci of observed-error processing, whether or not self-generated errors and those made by others are processed by the same neurons, and how the neural mechanisms of observed-error processing shape one’s own behavior.

In their recent study, Yoshida et al. (2012) investigated, using neurophysiological single-cell recordings, how medial frontal cortical neurons fire when macaque monkeys observe errors of another monkey. Two monkeys facing one another alternated in a choice task and, indicating that the monkeys were learning from each other’s mistakes, the monkeys correctly guided their own choice in most trials subsequent to no-reward trials of the other monkey. Cells firing during observation of another’s error were found in two medial frontal regions (convexity and sulcus), and about half of these neurons fired only when observing other’s errors (and not also during errors committed by oneself). The authors further suggested that the convexity subregion is more specifically involved in detection of others’ errors, and that the sulcus subregion is more important for guiding one’s behavior based on the errors committed by others.

These highly interesting findings shed light on the neural mechanisms underlying observational learning, demonstrate that there are neurons specifically responding to mistakes made by others and that there is fine regional specialization supporting error detection and shaping of one’s subsequent behavioral choices. This study also presents a very nice example of how specific aspects of a behavioral task can be isolated and associated with specific aspects of neural activity

Reference: Yoshida K, Saito N, Iriki A, Isoda M. Social error monitoring in macaque frontal cortex. Nature Neuroscience (2012) advance online publication http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1038/nn.3180

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