In a second experiment, this time only including the older participants, Brassen and her colleagues measured the skin conductance and heart rate—two measures known to fluctuate with emotions—of the participants while they played the devil game. In light of the brain imaging findings demonstrating similarities between the healthy young and depressed older participants in response to missed opportunities, Brassen and her colleagues expected that if healthy older participants were actually letting go of regret, then their heart rates and skin conductance shouldn’t change during missed opportunities either. Indeed, they found that when the depressed older participants missed out on a bunch of money, their skin conductance and heart rate significantly decreased, whereas when the healthy older participants missed out on a bunch of money their skin conductance and heart rates remained constant.
In both experiments, there were also differences in the way participants played the devil game. While the older depressed and younger participants tended to react to missing out on a lot of money on one round by being riskier and opening more boxes on the next round, the healthy older participants kept the same strategy regardless. The authors propose that their findings reflect how the aging brain protects us from the negative feelings of regret that usually accompany missed opportunities.
But why would this be unique to the aging brain? Wouldn’t this also be important when we are younger? Knowing about research demonstrating how bad stress and negative emotions are for one’s physical health and life expectancy, I am sure any young person out there who turned down investing in the iPhone application Instagram before Facebook bought it for a billion dollars would like to let go of the regret they are experiencing right now.
Perhaps it might be better for us to feel the pain of such missed opportunities when we are younger so that we learn from them and make better choices in the future. But when we are older, the future gets smaller, and so do the opportunities to correct previous missteps. So, as we age a more effective strategy is to let go of the things we’ll have little opportunity to fix. For those who haven’t adopted this adaptive strategy towards missed opportunities, learning to do so may help improve their emotional well-being. Brassen and her colleagues suggest that their findings could be applied to an age-appropriate cognitive-behavioral therapy regimen that would help the unsuccessfully aging disengage from regret inducing experiences. Indeed, with the number of depressed people over the age of 65 estimated to be at roughly 6 million in the United States alone, it is encouraging to consider how this research might be used to improve their lives.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.