Changing Behavior: How Our Brain Gets Us Out of a Rut

Changing your behavior is hard, as smokers who struggle to give up cigarettes or employees who try to find inspiration in jobs they hate know. New research discovered an area of the brain that could help you get out of that rut and head to a networking event instead of going home to numb the pain with ice cream. 

The posterior cingulate cortex, as the region is known, has been thought to help keep us attentive, according to previous research. The new study found that this area seems to get excited when you shake up your routine or have a wandering mind.

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As described in the October issue of Neuro, researchers carried out two experiments to study this link. In the first, they studied foraging monkeys (in a lab and in nature) who choose between a zone that could possibly provide more juice but would take more effort and one that consistently supplied juice until it ran out.

Neuroscientist Michael Platt of the University of Pennsylvania, a co-author of the study, likened it to picking fruit from a tree.

"At first it's easy, but after a while you have to climb farther and farther out on weaker branches to get the berries, most of which probably aren't ripe. At some point it makes sense to take the time and energy to go to the next tree," he said in a statement.

For the second experiment, there were two prizes hidden in six different spots. For each trial, the randomized locations changed, so the monkeys never knew where their reward would be found.

GettyImages-529086340 Scientists may have discovered that part of your brain could help you get out of your rut. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Platt explained in the release that the best solution is to travel in a circle, as monkeys and bees do in nature. However, sometimes animal behaviors veer from the routine, puzzling scientists.

The team recorded the monkeys’ posterior cingulate cortexes and found that neural activity spiked right before the animals decided to make an unexpected change.

"If you increased activity in the area exogenously, if I put an electrode in there and stimulated, then you would break off from the routine, you would become more exploratory," Platt said. "Similarly, if you could suppress activity, you'd see the opposite. You'd become hyper-focused on one option, and you may never make a change."

The team believes its finding could lead to games and tools that help people break from routine to foster creativity. Not only vital to those in the arts, creativity is an important function in every job and can even help with mundane tasks.

 

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