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Do I make my choices - or do they make me?

Drawings of brains

Trust-funded researchers, looking at how and why we make certain choices, have come up with some intriguing results. Comforting as it is to believe we have free will, it appears the chemical and structural make up of our brains can hold a very powerful sway over our actions and choices.  

Professor Ray Dolan at UCL has shown that fear of loss and regret (registered by fMRI in the amygdala, the 'emotional' brain) are key drivers in financial decision-making. They can push us to make sub-optimal choices geared towards minimising losses rather than the rational option of maximising a return. However, he also showed that we can recognise and overcome our emotional biases and make more optimal choices.

A different part of our brain, rather than exercising 'irrational' caution, prompts us to take risky, adventurous choices. When an action turns out to be more rewarding than we expected, we get a dopamine reward signal in the striatum, encouraging us to repeat the rewarded behaviour. The signal is enhanced under the influence of drugs that increase dopamine levels in the brain, such as those given to patients with Parkinson's disease. The result is an over-valuation of the reward leading to impulsive, risk-taking, pleasure-seeking behaviours such as gambling, hyper-sexuality and over-eating.

In a related study, Dr Bianca Wittman at UCL found that the same area of the brain, the striatum, lights up when people make 'adventurous' choices, opting for the unfamiliar rather than the known. Trying something new is therefore accompanied by a feeling of reward and is likely to be an important evolutionary mechanism, enabling organisms to enrich their diet, for example.

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