After eight years of research to back up a 20-year-old hypothesis, scientists have finally been able to pinpoint exactly what goes on in your brain the moment you realize your mistake and fix it. In a study on mice, researchers at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics were able to turn on and off the “oops” reflex that occurred when they became consciously aware of a self-made mistake and took corrective action.

The finding comes years after scientists first began studying a class of ephemeral brain signals called gamma oscillations. In 1993, Wolf Singer, a German scientist, hypothesized that these gamma waves enable binding of memory association. Working on this hypothesis, a team from MIT began a study to better understand memory in mice. As usual, the mice were trained to find their way through a maze and were rewarded with food when they succeeded.

During the study, the lead author, Jun Yamamoto noticed that mice sometimes made mistakes in their path. After turning in the wrong direction, the mice then paused and turned around to go in the correct direction. Yamamoto labeled this as the “oops” moment and went on to record the neural activity that occurred in the brain when the mice realized their mistakes and corrected them. “Our data suggests that animals consciously monitor whether their behavioral choices are correct and use memory recall to improve their outcomes,” Dr. Susumu Tonegawa, director of the study, explained in a press release.

Yamamoto found that there was a burst of gamma waves just before the “oops” moment. He also saw the gamma waves when mice chose the correct direction, but not when they failed to choose the correct direction or did not correct their mistakes. Yamamoto took his experiment one step further and found that he was able to purposely prevent mice from making the correct decision though manipulating a section of their brains. This was done by implanting a light sensitive fiber into the mouse’s brain that would turn off the gamma activity on command. Results showed that mice could no longer accurately choose the right direction when this part of their brains was switched off. As expected, the number of “oops” events significantly decreased.

These findings present strong evidence of the role gamma oscillations play in memory. Results from this experiment suggest a new classification of behavior called metacognition, or “thinking about thinking,” which occurs when one self-monitors one's actions.

Source: Yamamoto J, Suh J, Takeuchi D, Tonegawa S. Successful Execution of Working Memory Linked To Synchronized High-Frequency Gamma Oscillations.Cell. 2014.