According to Nature News, Brian Knutson and Camelia Kuhnen of Stanford have discovered that the interaction between two brain regions is involved in determining whether people take risks:
As centres for pleasure and anxiety battle it out, a simple brain scan of the two can actually predict what a person will chose to do a few seconds before they do it: when joy beats worry in our brain, a risky decision is made.
Studies of how the mind handles risky behaviour have highlighted a number of neural hotspots. One is a peanut-sized region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which is loaded with the molecule dopamine and becomes active in anticipation of pleasure. The nucleus accumbens is known to play a role in the addictive affect of drugs.
Another region, known as the anterior insula, is stimulated in anticipation of a bad sensation. This area lights up in those predicting the onset of physical pain, and in generally anxious individuals.
This doesn't complete the causal chain behind such decision-making. Indeed, the relative activity of these two regions may be better understood as a correlate of decision-making. Whether these dualing motivations are resolved in one way or another depends on other, earlier links in the chain.
It would be interesting to know if normally anxious people had a different threshold for action than normally risk-taking people, or whether instead, one or the other of the brain areas were simply more active in one than in the other.
The question for this week: what will my anterior insula let me get away with writing about...