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UTSC research on the value of scientific “failures” makes headlines

Psychologist Kevin Dunbar has studied the neuroscience of complex thinking to learn more about scientific discovery. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

Failures in scientific experiments can sometimes lead to important and unlikely new discoveries, provided the researchers can re-examine their experimental errors from a fresh perspective.

That’s the tangible evidence around the neuroscience of complex scientific thinking revealed by UTSC psychologist Kevin Dunbar, who undertook an extensive study of methods of scientific research by observing real experiments over a one-year period at Stanford University. He was aiming to learn more about how scientific discoveries happen and how the brain pursues research.

Dunbar, who joined the University of Toronto Scarborough in 2007, studied the processes and methods of scientists at four labs at Stanford University. His project revealed that the pursuit of science can be deeply frustrating, with results that were often more than 50 per cent unexpected. Dunbar’s study revealed that scientific “blips” or unexpected results were often dismissed as methodological or human errors by scientists and discarded by researchers when the data didn’t match expectations.

In those cases, important results were therefore often overlooked or ignored by scientists who failed to follow up on those questions, which might relate to questions or problems outside the original framework of the project. However, he discovered that most new ideas emerged from lab meetings -- instances where scientists took part in group discussions or lab meetings with colleagues who were somewhat removed from the original research, and that questions and discussions raised in those groups by “outsiders” often led the researchers to look at their own work with fresh eyes -- and to explore or reconsider data they had previously ignored, often with great results.

Dunbar has made similar findings following research at molecular biology labs in Canada and Italy. He has been extending this research by investigating patterns of activation in the brain when people encounter unexpected findings. In particular, he has used two approaches to uncover the brain-based mechanisms used by people when they encounter the unexpected: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which tracks the flow of oxygenated blood in response to specific brain activities; and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which detects blood flow using laser-based light and is more tolerant of movement than fMRI, allowing participants to carry on activities such as talking or writing.

A professor in the department of psychology, Dunbar is the principal investigator in the Laboratory for Complex Thinking and Reasoning: Brains, Genes, Cognition, at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Dunbar is an alumnus of UTSC, completing his PhD here in 1985 before going on to do postdoctoral work at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He then became a professor at McGill University and New Hampshire's Dartmouth College respectively. Dunbar said he was pleased to return to the University of Toronto Scarborough three years ago.

His findings have been published in a research profile piece in a recent issue of WIRED magazine. The article is titled “Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up.” To read the full article, click here.


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