Learning the hard way may be the best way

I recently came across this article – Learning information the hard way may be best ‘boot camp’ for older brains (thanks Twitter) and I found it very encouraging. It seems to support what I believe more and more every day — learning things the hard way is the best way of all. And it seems to support my sense that when you’re bouncing back from TBI, and you’re working at overcoming cognitive and behavioral deficits, pushing yourself a bit, making mistakes, and then learning from your mistakes can be very, very helpful.

I’m not a rehab person, so I can’t speak to how rehabilitation theory goes, but it seems to me that — especially with TBI — there may be an eagerness (conscious or not) to ease up when things get tough… easy does it… and let up on the amount of challenge that’s presented to the patient/survivor/individual. I think it may actually be human nature to do that, since you don’t want to push people too terribly hard, especially if they have been injured. You don’t want them to overdo it, and you also don’t want to put yourself in danger by provoking aggressive behavior.

I think that aggressive behavior and tendencies to lash out are particular dangers when it comes to TBI and recovery. People get intimidated and/or they just don’t want to have to deal with it, anymore. When someone with TBI gets overwhelmed and feels put-upon / threatened, they can lash out and make the lives of everyone around them pretty miserable. It’s not fun for anyone, and the person being pushed can end up feeling stupid, depleted, and generally less of a real person than they were before.

And nobody wants that.

So, we tend to back off. Unconsciously, I think. Because we don’t always know what to do, and our lives are often “exciting” enough without having to deal with someone’s brain injury on top of it. So, we don’t push others. And if we’ve got our own brain injury issues to deal with, we may get dispirited from having a bunch of bad experiences that make us think there’s something wrong with us, and we have to do less instead of more, so we don’t end up looking/sounding/acting like freaks.

The thing of it is, though, this may be the opposite of what we should be doing. Especially if we are older. It’s one thing for kids who experience TBI – their brains are changing and growing and they are still being developed. And learning the hard way may pose issues for them, as their personalities are still developing, and they may pick up some flawed messages (or interpretations of messages) from their experiences.

For older brain injury survivors, however, it could be that making mistakes and learning from them is the best medicine.

From the article:

Canadian researchers have found the first evidence that older brains get more benefit than younger brains from learning information the hard way – via trial-and-error learning.

The finding will surprise professional educators and cognitive rehabilitation clinicians as it challenges a large body of published science which has shown that making mistakes while learning information hurts memory performance for older adults, and that passive “errorless” learning (where the correct answer is provided) is better suited to older brains.

“The scientific literature has traditionally embraced errorless learning for older adults. However, our study has shown that if older adults are learning material that is very conceptual, where they can make a meaningful relationship between their errors and the correct information that they are supposed to remember, in those cases the errors can actually be quite beneficial for the learning process,” said Andreé-Ann Cyr, the study’s lead investigator.

In two separate studies, researchers compared the memory benefits of trial-and-error learning (TEL) with errorless learning (EL) in memory exercises with groups of healthy young and older adults. The young adults were in their 20s; the older adults’ average age was 70. TEL is considered a more effortful cognitive encoding process where the brain has to “scaffold” its way to making richer associations and linkages in order to reach the correct target information. Errorless learning (EL) is considered passive, or less taxing on the brain, because it provides the correct answer to be remembered during the learning process.


In both studies, participants remembered the learning context of the target words better if they had been learned through trial-and-error, relative to the errorless condition. This was especially true for the older adults whose performance benefited approximately 2.5 times more relative to their younger peers.

This really excites me, because it confirms what I have firmly believed for some time — that the process of learning from mistakes is far more instructive than getting everything right the first time. I’ve seen it time and time again, and I do believe it’s one of the secrets of my success over the years — I’m not afraid to make mistakes. The times when mistakes are a problem, are when other people have no tolerance for mistakes, and they expect me to get everything right the first time.

Here’s the deal — I’ve had enough injuries and experiences over the course of my life, that the chances of me getting everything right the first time are slim to none. And in fact, the times when I do (by chance) get things right the first time, I’m less likely to repeat the performance on down the line.

So, I have a pretty high tolerance for screwing up the first time through. The problem is, however, I am working with people now who don’t have a high tolerance for it. They get nervous. They think it means there’s something wrong. I say, as long as people are pulling together as a team and can help cover for each other and area available to help — and there is no stigma associated with screwing up — you can get a ton of work done, and do it quite well. And everybody can learn something from it. But if you hang your hat on always getting everything right, delivering everything ON TIME and being 100% error-free at all times, without fail, well then, you’re just setting up bogus expectations that will make everyone feel like crap.

I think one of the hurdles with overcoming TBI when you’re older, is that conviction that you’ve already learned what you need to know, and you’re not going to need to learn things again. Or that if you have to learn things again, and you screw up the first time (or first couple of times) you do something that “should” be familiar, it means there’s something wrong with you, and you’re damaged permanently.

This is also a big problem, when you’re dealing with other adults, who hang their hats on the idea that they are experts and they know all there is to know about their subject matter and domains of expertise. It’s tough, especially in professional circles, where your livelihood depends on KNOWING how things work and being EXTREMELY CAPABLE  in everything you do. In a business environment, where precision and perfection are prized and financially rewarded, it can be pretty tough going. Especially when everyone around you is even harder on themselves than on others. In a work environment, there is this mythos of perfection, of ideal execution, of getting things right, no matter what. Especially in technology, we’ve got this, and it’s a pain in the ass at times. There’s just this expectation that if you’re being compensated a certain amount, you’re going to perform at a certain level. And there’s not a lot of margin for error. Getting it right the first time is the ideal.

But I don’t think life works like that. And I think that sets us up for failure of our own making. Of course things will be overlooked. Of course we will make mistakes. Of course we need to relearn things. Of course we’re going to be constantly surprised by the areas where we have to make more progress, even repeat former progress. Of course we’re going to have plenty of occasions where we’re a lot less facile than we thought we would be. That’s all part of relearning to live our lives in this new way. But it doesn’t mean we’re broken, permanently damaged, or unable to have full and fulfilling lives.

Far from it.

It just means we’re human in all different ways, and we have the opportunity to learn again — again and again and again.

Ultimately, I think a lot of it is about avoiding those mental traps we block ourselves into — being too brittle, inflexible, and not being open to greater possibilities in life. TBI is problematic in that it can make us more agitated, restless, irritable, and aggressive, and our brains are really sensitive to flagging energy, so that can make this kind of “boot camp” learning problematic. But if we can get past the idea that messing up means there’s something wrong, then this kind of trial-and-error learning can be a very powerful tool in helping us get back to where we want to be — and even better.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

One thought on “Learning the hard way may be the best way”

  1. Reminds me of the gamer saying ‘fail early, fail often’. Gamers learn a game by making mistakes as soon as possible – and those gamers that do this, get better results than more cautious individuals. I don’t have TBI, but in general, I agree that mistakes are a good thing, in business also, because they’re like touching reality, as opposed to being theoretical. I think the trick is to make a lot of small mistakes and learn, rather than one catastrophic huge mistake at the end of the process which brings a project crashing down.

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