Who takes risks? The nerves can tell

March 13th, 2008 - 5:01 pm ICT by admin  

New York, Mar 13 (IANS) An international team of neurologists claim they have discovered how human beings assess risk - something that holds the potential to explain behavioural quirks such as addiction to gambling. The study, by researchers at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Caltech, also sheds light on why certain kinds of risk - notably financial risk - are too often underestimated, Sciencedaily reported.

Findings of the study, which basically suggest that emotions may be intimately involved in rational decision-making, have been reported in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Planning entails making predictions, the study noted, but in an uncertain environment, predictions often don’t pan out the way they were expected to.

A wrong risk assessment leads to unusual behaviour such as euphoria, panic or depression - depending on whether error happened on the upside or downside.

To get a handle on these varied reactions, the researchers looked at the neurobiological mechanisms humans use to predict risk.

The team used functional imaging in a simple gambling task in which risk was constantly changed. It discovered that an early activation of a part of the brain (the anterior insula) was associated with mistakes in predicting risk.

The finding was particularly interesting, said the study’s lead author Peter Bossaerts, because the anterior insula is the area of the brain where we integrate and process emotions.

“This represents an important advance in our understanding of the neurological underpinnings of risk… and indicates that we need to update our understanding of the neural basis of reward anticipation in uncertain conditions to include risk assessment.”

The finding that risk prediction and processing of emotions are related suggests that emotions could be involved in rational decision-making - that it helps us to correctly assess risk.

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