Learning through Reward or Punishment: Can Our Brains Perceive the Difference?

ChrisOne of the primary ways we learn a new skill is through our teachers providing feedback in the form encouragement or criticism. This feedback is very valuable to learning and is meant to incentivize the learner to improve their upcoming performance. But are there some types of feedback that can hinder to skill learning? Recently, researchers have focused on how reward and punishment affect skill learning and retention. These studies demonstrate that punishment feedback enables faster learning but diminishes task preservation. Whereas reward feedback, promotes both learning and retention (1). Additionally, reward and punishment feedback activate different areas of the brain (2). Collectively, these studies suggest reward and punishment have distinguished effects behavior and our brains. However one question still remains: How are these types of feedback actually changing our brain during the process of learning and retention? Currently, no study has looked at how reward and punishment affect the moment to moment processes of the brain after receiving the feedback.

In our lab we sought to answer this question by utilizing electroencephalography to monitor feedback event related potentials (ERPs), a distinct change in the neural activity associated with feedback, in human participants after they received a monetary reward, monetary punishment, or no feedback as they attempted to learn and retain a novel visuomotor rotation task. During the learning stage, we found that all groups learned the task at the same rate and there were no differences in the feedback ERP amplitude (strength of the electrical signal) across all groups. However, during retention testing, the punishment group failed retain the task and their feedback ERP amplitude decreased. Whereas reward and null maintained a similar performance and ERP amplitude throughout retention testing.

But what does this mean? Feedback ERPs have been associated with how our brains represent the motor task (3). We suggest that punishment interferes with the brain processes that are responsible for how our brain stores motor tasks by taking away resources used for learning and retention, to avoid the aversive outcomes. Thus punishment may not be suitable for creating long-term changes in learner’s performance.

So, if we ever find ourselves providing guidance for a new learner, let’s keep in mind how we provide direction not only affects how your pupil learns, but also affects how their brain prepares for the task in future.

1. Galea, J. M., Mallia, E., Rothwell, J., & Diedrichsen, J. (2015). The dissociable effects of punishment and reward on motor learning. Nature Neuroscience, 18, 597-602.

2. Steel, A., Silson, E. H., Stagg, C. J., & Baker, C. I. (2019). Reward and punishment differentially recruit cerebellum and medial temporal lobe to facilitate skill memory retention. Neuroimage, 189, 95-105.

3. Palidis, D. J., Cashaback, J. G., & Gribble, P. L. (2019). Neural signatures of reward and sensory error feedback processing in motor learning. Journal of Neurophysiology, 121, 1561-1574.

Christopher Hill

Health and Exercise Science

University of Mississippi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s