Neurophysiology: Brain activity in fatal errors

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Neurophysiology: Brain activity in fatal errors
Neurophysiology: Brain activity in fatal errors

Brain activity during momentous mistakes

When we make a wrong decision, our brain differentiates between those that have unpleasant consequences and others that leave us unscathed or simply mean forgoing a reward.

During a series of 360 tests in quick succession, researchers working with Stephan Taylor from the University of Michigan measured the activity in the rear area of the so-called front cingulate cortex (rostral anterior cingulate cortex, rACC) observed. This brain region on the upper frontal lobe reacts to mistakes or difficult decisions between contradictory alternatives.

Within fractions of a second, the test persons should, for example, identify rows of letters and sort out unsuitable characters. Some of the test questions had pen alties for wrong answers and others had rewards ranging from 25 cents to $2 for correct answers. Still others were free of both. The researchers provided the subjects with a fictitious starting capital of ten dollars and gave them the prospect of being allowed to keep any surplus from the test. Immediately after their respective answer, the test persons found out whether they had guessed correctly or incorrectly or whether they had reacted too late.

The anterior cingulate cortex worked particularly intensively when the subjects noticed mistakes that cost them money. If the error did not result in a loss or if the test subjects only missed a gain, this area was much less active. Since this brain area also processes emotions, the scientists suspect that the evaluation of errors and emotions are closely linked.

In previous studies with patients with OCD, the rACC always reacted with the same intensity. In addition, those affected almost always complained that they were very afraid of making mistakes. The researchers now want to carry out the same study with corresponding patients and speculate that they will be able to develop better treatment methods in the future.

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