60-Second Mind

Where the Desire for Change Resides

Scientists have found an area of the brain that becomes highly active when we finally decide to explore the unknown. Christie Nicholson reports

[Below is the original script. But a few changes may have been made during the recording of this audio podcast.]

Most of us know two kinds of people: those who crave change and others who would rather stick to routine.

And people suffering from illnesses like Alzheimer’s or obsessive compulsive disorder often don’t have much of a choice. Typically they prefer a highly predictable environment.

But most of us, at some point, recall a moment where we decided to leap into the unknown and take a chance to change our lives, hopefully for the better.

Well Duke University scientists have discovered a part of the brain that sparks a desire to explore.

The researchers followed monkeys given a choice.  They could either stick with a known reward or explore other possible “mystery” rewards that they had learned could sometimes be better than the familiar prize .

By studying the level of firing of individual neurons in the brain’s posterior cingulate cortex, the scientists could predict whether the monkey would take the chance to explore new options. The neurons fired more vigorously when the monkey made up his mind to go for it.

Learning how this specific area of the brain functions may lead to new insight into how we adapt to novel environments. And could help those who feel trapped by the need for the same old routine.

—Christie Nicholson

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