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Why sometimes we are willing to take risks? It might be because of spontaneous brain fluctuations

Posted August 28, 2019

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where taking a risk could bring some benefits. Sometimes those benefits can be really low and yet we succumb to the urge of doing it. Scientists from UCL conducted a study, which showed that minute-to-minute fluctuations in human brain activity, caused by changing levels of dopamine, can be linked to our impulsive risk-taking behaviour.

Sometimes we succumb to an urge to take risks, where chances of success are really low. Image credit: Ralf Roletschek via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Humans are very weird animals and our behaviour is difficult to study. One day we may be taking risks and another day we may be afraid to do that again. Our inconsistent behaviour has puzzled scientists for some time, but it actually makes sense – activity in our brain never stops, even if we are not doing anything. Dopamine levels are changing, which produces fluctuations in brain activity and causes our risk-taking behaviour. At least that’s what this new study has shown.

Researchers monitored brain activity in the dopaminergic midbrain of 43 people. They had to complete gambling tasks while in an MRI scanner. Participants could play safe or choose a risky option. By risking they could receive nothing or get more money. If they chose a safe option they would always receive a small amount of money. The dopaminergic midbrain, the focus of this research, is the area of the human brain containing most of the dopamine neurons. Researchers found that participants were more likely to take the risky option when the dopaminergic midbrain activity was low. These fluctuations in the dopaminergic midbrain are natural, but they can be enhanced with drugs or medicine. This also explains why young people are more likely to take risks than older people.

If you are about to make an important decision, wait a couple of minutes. Think about it, let your brains go through its cycles. You have to think about the same decision and your options both when your  dopaminergic midbrain is not very active and when it is very active. This is how you will make the best decision. But why our brains are designed this way?

Dr Robb Rutledge, senior author of the study, said: “Our brains may have evolved to have spontaneous fluctuations in a key brain area for decision making because it makes us more unpredictable and better able to cope with a changing world”.

Humans need to think about their decisions. Sometimes there is no time to actually weigh advantages against disadvantages. If we have natural tendencies to lean on the safe or the risky side, other people (and predators in a more natural setting) will quickly learn that and we will become predictable. This would make us vulnerable. So this fluctuation from risky to safe is actually an advantage to us.


Source: UCL

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