To some extent, risk-taking is a part of our daily lives. On a daily basis, we make decisions that
require us to weigh up possible outcomes. However, although we may prefer to play it safe on
some occasions, on others, we may feel brave enough to take a gamble.
Why do these changes in risk-taking behaviors occur? That is what researchers from the University
College London in the United Kingdom recently tried to find out.
The short version is that we take more risks when we feel better equipped to handle the fallout,
as we humans have known since forever. Scientists, however, feel the need to reinvent the wheel,
if only to prove that their missions weren’t a total failure once we kick them off our planet.
Experts have long struggled to explain why people are so erratic, making one decision one day
and the opposite decision another day. We know that the brain is constantly active, even when
we aren’t doing anything, so we wondered if this background activity affects our decision
making," explains co-lead study author Tobias Hauser, Ph.D.
In their study, Hauser and team wondered if natural fluctuations in brain activity when the brain
is in a state of rest that may have something to do with our risk-taking inclinations.
Their findings — which now appear in the journal PNAS — indicate that this may be the case,
with higher resting brain activity being associated with higher dopamine levels and a higher
chance of taking risks.
It appears that our inconsistent behavior is partly explained by what our brain is doing when we
are doing nothing," says Hauser.
For this study, the researchers initially recruited 49 healthy young adults, of whom 43 fulfilled
all the requirements to take part in the research.
As part of the research, the investigators focused on resting brain activity. When a person is
awake but idle, their brain is not occupied with anything in particular, but it remains alert and
They studied activity in a brain region called the dopaminergic midbrain, which contains the
highest amount of dopaminergic neurons. These are the brain cells that release dopamine, a
chemical messenger that helps regulate self-motivation-related behaviors.
The researchers took MRI scans of the participant’s brains while they took part in a
experimental gambling activity. They had to choose between a safe option that would gain them
a small amount of money and a risky option that could bring them either a larger amount of
money or no money at all.
However, the researchers only asked the participants to make a choice when, at rest, their brains
showed either a spike in activity in the dopaminergic midbrain or when activity in that area was
at a low.
When there was little activity in this brain region prior to the participants’ decision making, they
were more likely to opt for the safest choice. However, when activity in this brain area was high
during a state of rest, the participants were likelier to gamble.
Hauser and team note that these natural fluctuations in resting brain activity appear to have
similar effects to other factors that influence risk-taking decisions.
These other factors include taking drugs that influence the release of dopamine and the effect of
aging on the brain; older people are less likely to take risks than younger people.
Going forward, the investigators want to better understand how natural fluctuations in resting
brain activity influence our decisions on a daily basis. They also want to find out if they could
use such findings to devise better treatments for conditions such as gambling addiction.
Disclaimer: if you think I’m serious about the aliens, you may be a scientist.
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