To err is human, as the saying goes. And in many ways, when we learn from what goes wrong, we become better people. But, as Laurel Hamers of Science News reports, neuroscience now shows that, when you screw up, there's a right way and a wrong way to respond.

Mistakes distract your brain and lower attention

To take a hard look at how the brain reacts to mistakes, a team of researchers led by psychologist George Buzzell had 23 individuals look at concentric circles flashed briefly on a screen. In each challenge, the colors of the circles were either the same or slightly different. The participants' had to identify the sameness or difference by raising one hand or the other.

Buzzell and his team found that the individuals participating in the study typically answered the challenge following a mistake correctly if given a second or two to recoup. But they performed worse when they weren't allowed as much recovery time after a mistake, with accuracy dropping approximately 10 percent when time between an error and a new color challenge fell to 0.2 seconds. Buzzell also looked at electrical activity from the visual cortex, the part of your brain that receives and processes information from your eyes. That data showed that making a mistake negatively affected how much the participants paid attention to the next color challenge.

Buzzell's results prove that, as the brain processes a mistake, it's temporarily distracted, making it harder for you to pay attention and move on without additional errors. It explains from a scientific perspective the dreaded snowball effect of screwups, where once you've made a mistake, if you don't have any recovery time, you keep making more blunders.

Buzzell's science is half the puzzle--psychology plays in too

Most people become at least a little self-conscious after making a mistake. We become afraid that others will judge us as being incompetent--or just generally not good enough--because of the error. And that's terrifying, because if we're not good enough, there's very little (we believe) to stop others from kicking us to the curb and forgetting us. We don't want to be alone. On some level, we don't believe we'll survive if we are. And to pour salt in the wound, the spotlight effect, which causes people to think others are noticing things about them that they probably aren't, only magnifies our fear. We have to cope with all of this on top of what's happening in the visual cortex.

Strategies for stopping the snowball

The above research should make it clear that you're not doing yourself any favors if you try to rush and immediately plow through to the next thing when a mistake happens. To get back on track and reduce the odds you keep messing up:

  • Take one good deep breath before continuing.
  • Take a sip of water to insert an inconspicuous pause.
  • Stretch.
  • Laugh at yourself if you can. A little self-depreciating humor can go a long way in terms of connecting you with those listening to you.
  • Your audience often won't even realize you made a blunder. But if you must, insert a polite "Excuse me" (no more apology than that!), correct yourself with confidence, and then move on. You give yourself a psychological boost from having gone through the information or task properly, and as long as you don't make a big deal out of what happened, your audience will appreciate your honesty and accuracy.
  • Take your hands off what you're doing, close your eyes until the count of three, and restart.
  • Doodle for two or three seconds. Doodling actually can help you focus.
  • If what you're doing is fairly familiar and repetitive, turn on some non-vocal music you know. The beat of the music naturally will help you set a reasonable pace and provide a groove to swing back into when glitches happen. Plus, music can boost your mood so you don't dwell on the mistakes too much.

Remember, different situations are going to require different recovery options. It's easier to doodle at your desk, for instance, than it is onstage. But the key is to find something, any positive diversion, that gives your brain the second it needs to process and reset when you goof. Experiment to find your personal go-tos, and watch how much pressure you put on yourself. You're only human, and believe it or not, people are surprisingly approving of taking the time to do things right. You don't need to rush it, and nobody expects you to be perfect. They just expect you to try.