Mistakes: Windows into your brain

One of the best ways neurologists learn about brain function is by observing brain dysfunction. When something goes wrong in a brain, neurologists can observe abnormal behavior and infer how normal brains operate.

Similarly, we can learn a lot about our brains through our mistakes. When our brains operate smoothly, it’s hard to know what’s going on inside. We often don’t know how we do what we do; we just do it. But when we slip up, we can sometimes infer something about brain function through our mistake.

This past weekend, I caught myself in a revealing mistake. My in-laws told me my cell phone was ringing, and I told them (in Chinese) that I knew it was my brother calling and that I’d call him on our house phone because my cell phone gets lousy reception. What’s interesting is that I used the wrong word for brother. The Chinese language is very specific about family relationships. There are different words, for example, for relations on your mother’s side and on your father’s side. In this case, I incorrectly used the word for “older brother” (哥哥, ge1ge1) rather than “younger brother” (弟弟, di4di4). As the word was coming out of my mouth, I already knew I was using the wrong word.

Part of my problem is that one English word maps into two Chinese words. One-to-many word mappings cause similar problems for Chinese people learning English. Many Chinese people confuse “he” and “she” (and “him” and “her”) — and continue confusing them many years after becoming otherwise excellent English speakers — because it’s all the same sound (ta1) in Chinese. (I believe it was the same written character too until relatively recently when they introduced sex-specific versions.)

The other part of my problem is that I’m constantly saying “ge1ge1” (哥哥) because my son is older than my daughter. Repetition strengthens brain connections.

So, my first problem was reaching for the word “brother,” rather than “younger brother,” because that’s how English trained my brain. And my second problem was thoughtlessly grabbing “older brother” (哥哥) because it’s so much stronger in my mind than “younger brother” (弟弟), due to repetition.

Posted by James on Monday, June 21, 2010