Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Brain scans show we take risks because we can't stop ourselves

Date:
February 4, 2014
Source:
University of Texas at Austin
Summary:
A new study correlating brain activity with how people make decisions suggests that when individuals engage in risky behavior, such as drunk driving or unsafe sex, it’s probably not because their brains’ desire systems are too active, but because their self-control systems are not active enough. This might have implications for how health experts treat mental illness and addiction or how the legal system assesses a criminal’s likelihood of committing another crime.

When these brain regions (mostly associated with control) aren't active enough, we make risky choices. Z-statistic corresponds to predictive ability, yellow being the most predictive regions.
Credit: Sarah Helfinstein/U. of Texas at Austin.

A new study correlating brain activity with how people make decisions suggests that when individuals engage in risky behavior, such as drunk driving or unsafe sex, it's probably not because their brains' desire systems are too active, but because their self-control systems are not active enough.

Related Articles


This might have implications for how health experts treat mental illness and addiction or how the legal system assesses a criminal's likelihood of committing another crime.

Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin, UCLA and elsewhere analyzed data from 108 subjects who sat in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner -- a machine that allows researchers to pinpoint brain activity in vivid, three-dimensional images -- while playing a video game that simulates risk-taking.

The researchers used specialized software to look for patterns of activity across the whole brain that preceded a person's making a risky choice or a safe choice in one set of subjects. Then they asked the software to predict what other subjects would choose during the game based solely on their brain activity. The software accurately predicted people's choices 71 percent of the time.

"These patterns are reliable enough that not only can we predict what will happen in an additional test on the same person, but on people we haven't seen before," said Russell Poldrack, director of UT Austin's Imaging Research Center and professor of psychology and neuroscience.

When the researchers trained their software on much smaller regions of the brain, they found that just analyzing the regions typically involved in executive functions such as control, working memory and attention was enough to predict a person's future choices. Therefore, the researchers concluded, when we make risky choices, it is primarily because of the failure of our control systems to stop us.

"We all have these desires, but whether we act on them is a function of control," said Sarah Helfinstein, a postdoctoral researcher at UT Austin and lead author of the study that appears online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Helfinstein said that additional research could focus on how external factors, such as peer pressure, lack of sleep or hunger, weaken the activity of our brains' control systems when we contemplate risky decisions.

"If we can figure out the factors in the world that influence the brain, we can draw conclusions about what actions are best at helping people resist risks," said Helfinstein.

To simulate features of real-world risk-taking, the researchers used a video game called the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART) that past research has shown correlates well with self-reported risk-taking such as drug and alcohol use, smoking, gambling, driving without a seatbelt, stealing and engaging in unprotected sex.

While playing the BART, the subject sees a balloon on the screen and is asked to make either a risky choice (inflate the balloon a little and earn a few cents) or a safe choice (stop the round and "cash out," keeping whatever money was earned up to that point). Sometimes inflating the balloon causes it to burst and the player loses all the cash earned from that round. After each successful balloon inflation, the game continues with the chance of earning another standard-sized reward or losing an increasingly large amount. Many health-relevant risky decisions share this same structure, such as when deciding how many alcoholic beverages to drink before driving home or how much one can experiment with drugs or cigarettes before developing an addiction.

The data for this study came from the Consortium for Neuropsychiatric Phenomics at UCLA, which recruited adults from the Los Angeles area for researchers to examine differences in response inhibition and working memory between healthy adults and patients diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Only data collected from healthy participants were included in the present analyses.

Other researchers on the study include: Tom Schonberg and Jeanette A. Mumford at The University of Texas at Austin; Katherine H. Karlsgodt at Zucker Hillside Hospital and the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research; Eliza Congdon, Fred W. Sabb, Edythe D. London and Robert M. Bilder at UCLA; and Tyrone D. Cannon at Yale University.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Consortium for Neuropsychiatric Phenomics and the Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Texas at Austin. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. S. M. Helfinstein, T. Schonberg, E. Congdon, K. H. Karlsgodt, J. A. Mumford, F. W. Sabb, T. D. Cannon, E. D. London, R. M. Bilder, R. A. Poldrack. Predicting risky choices from brain activity patterns. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1321728111

Cite This Page:

University of Texas at Austin. "Brain scans show we take risks because we can't stop ourselves." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 February 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140204185528.htm>.
University of Texas at Austin. (2014, February 4). Brain scans show we take risks because we can't stop ourselves. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 25, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140204185528.htm
University of Texas at Austin. "Brain scans show we take risks because we can't stop ourselves." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140204185528.htm (accessed October 25, 2014).

Share This



More Health & Medicine News

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

IKEA Desk Converts From Standing to Sitting With One Button

IKEA Desk Converts From Standing to Sitting With One Button

Buzz60 (Oct. 24, 2014) IKEA is out with a new convertible desk that can convert from a sitting desk to a standing one with just the push of a button. Jen Markham explains. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
Ebola Protective Suits Being Made in China

Ebola Protective Suits Being Made in China

AFP (Oct. 24, 2014) A factory in China is busy making Ebola protective suits for healthcare workers and others fighting the spread of the virus. Duration: 00:38 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
WHO: Millions of Ebola Vaccine Doses by 2015

WHO: Millions of Ebola Vaccine Doses by 2015

AP (Oct. 24, 2014) The World Health Organization said on Friday that millions of doses of two experimental Ebola vaccines could be ready for use in 2015 and five more experimental vaccines would start being tested in March. (Oct. 24) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Doctor in NYC Quarantined With Ebola

Doctor in NYC Quarantined With Ebola

AP (Oct. 24, 2014) An emergency room doctor who recently returned to the city after treating Ebola patients in West Africa has tested positive for the virus. He's quarantined in a hospital. (Oct. 24) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins