What Happens in Your Brain When You Fail?

“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.” ~ J.K. Rowling

At one stage or another, we have all experienced failure. It often invokes a negative emotion which connotes feelings and ideas of defeat, frustration, and disappointment. Failure is subjective and it really depends on what you classify as failing. Most likely, your idea of failure may vary greatly from your parents, your neighbors, and your friends. Generally speaking, it can be defined as a state or condition of not meeting or achieving an objective as you had intended; essentially, it is a lack of success.

What does our brain do when failingThere are a number of reasons and events which can lead us to feel this way. For example, failing a course in college or being overlooked for a promotion at work, are just two out of hundreds of reasons that may lead you to feel like you have failed. What’s important to note here is that you are not alone. As human beings we make mistakes. Failure is a part of life, especially if you’re trying new things and attempting challenges you haven’t tackled before.

So, what’s the bottom line here?

The bottom line is that failure is what you make of it.

It’s important to understand why these feelings around failure occur, what happens in our brains when they do and how to tackle them head on.

Why Are We Scared of Failing?

When it comes to understanding failure, we first have to understand why we are scared of failing. A study titled Enhanced Risk Aversion, But Not Loss Aversion, in Unmedicated Pathological Anxiety, conducted by researchers from the Institute of Neuroscience at University College London, did just that. The study tested whether pathological anxiety is something which makes us more afraid of failing or if fear is caused because we are unaware of what will happen.

For example, a student studying for her degree may be scared of failing. However, the underlying fear is that she doesn’t know what will happen or what she will do after she fails her exams, rather than the act of failing itself.

The study concluded that the findings “indicate that the success of these interventions may not be so much about desensitizing individuals to the object of their fears (i.e., reducing loss aversion), but rather showing them that they can successfully navigate past them (i.e., they can take a risk and not come to harm).”
Failure is a steppingstone to success

The Science Behind Failure

Like all emotions and feelings, when you fail at something, it triggers a series of events and chemicals in the brain. Feelings such as disappointment, anxiety, and shame may arise if you experience failing. In an article published by Educational Advancement, the Director of Operations comments:

“When we experience a win, our brains release endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, which encourage us to engage in a task again. When we experience a failure, our brains release cortisol and do not leave us with feelings of acceptance and safety.”

Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone and it works alongside certain parts of your brain to regulate your “mood, motivation, and fear.” It is also known for fueling your fight-or-flight response, which is a psychological reaction that occurs in your brain to a highly stressful or dangerous situation.

Failure Can Help Your Brain Grow

On the outside, failure can feel final and seem like the end of the world as you know it. But as it turns out, what you do with your failure afterwards is the important part. Research from the University of Southern California used MRI’s of 28 subjects around the age of 26 who were asked a series of challenging questions. If the subjects got an answer right, they would win money; if they got an answer wrong, they would lose money. The results of the research show how the human brain learns in two different ways when you experience failure: 

1. Avoidance learning

This form of learning trains the brain to avoid making a mistake, this is seen as a negative experience which punishes the brain.

2 . Reward-based learning

Reward-based learning happens when making a mistake rewards us as the brain learns from its failures, it is a “reinforcing process that occurs when someone gets the right answer.” (Palminteri et al., 2015)

Failure is a matter of perspectiveThe study further suggests that learning from your failures can become a positive experience, if you allow it to be. Your failures provide an opportunity of growth, for you to learn new things and learn from any mistakes you make. Remember, the brain is pliable and it has the ability to change as you go through life and experience new things.

Related reading: "A Fixed Mindset versus a Growth Mindset"

Tips for Dealing with Failure

Now you know what happens in your brain when you experience failure and why it could actually be a good thing and enhance your brain. Here are our top tips on how to deal with failure: 

1. Be kind to yourself. You are only human, and everyone makes mistakes.

2. Allow yourself to feel. Feeling sad, angry or disappointed is a normal part of the process so acknowledge your feelings.

3. Recognize failing is normal. Some of the most successful people in the world have experienced failure. For example, Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star because his editor felt he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas,” whilst Steven Spielberg was rejected numerous times from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Both succeeded.

4. Acknowledge when things go wrong, what could you have done better, or what you can do better next time.

5. Don’t fear failure, it is an inevitability, what you do with it is the important part.

Sources Cited:

https://educationaladvancement.org/blog-rewire-your-brain-for-success-when-you-fail/

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/success-29-famous-people-failed-jay-z-oprah-winfrey-steven-spielberg-isaac-newton-charles-darwin-a7892406.html

https://www.mindful.org/brain-thrives-mistakes/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466268/

https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/jul/05/tips-for-dealing-with-failure-siobhan-curham

Palminteri, S., Khamassi, M., Joffily, M. and Coricelli, G. (2015). Contextual modulation of value signals in reward and punishment learning. Nature Communications, 6(1).

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Guest Blogger / Sajal AzamGuest Blogger / Sajal Azam
Sajal is a writer and Brand Team Associate for Peak.net. Peak’s mission is to help the world spend their time better using tools and techniques borrowed from education, neuroscience, and gaming. We make products that add value to your world and help you enjoy life more. We also collaborate with top neuroscientists and share what we have learned with the world.

Posted in Brain Fitness, Mindfulness and Perspective