Living at the Moment is Easier Said than Done, New Study Reveals

By Rebecca Lewis on August 10, 2012

Forgetting the past and living in the now might be easier said than done, a new study reveals. There, they looked at the brain of individuals as they make decisions and discovered one area that’s responsible for using past decisions and outcomes towards future behaviour.

The study, published in the professional journal Neuron, was headed by Marc Sommer, a former University of Pittsburgh neuroscience faculty member. “The brain has to keep track of decisions and the outcomes they produce”, he said. He was the first to analyse the signals associated with metacognition – one of the newest concepts introduced in educational psychology, also called ‘knowing about knowing’.

The brain is in a continuity of thought, explained Sommer. We are always making decisions as we move through life, thinking about other things. He suspects that the neuronal correlates of metacognition are located in the same areas responsible for cognition. This includes the frontal cortex, the region of the brain linked with decision-making, social behaviour, and personality.

Together with Paul G. Middlebrooks from the Vanderbilt University, a former neuroscience student at University of Pittsburgh, Sommer studied the three frontal cortical regions of the brain which are the frontal eye field, the area in the brain linked with visual attention and eye movements; the  dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which is responsible for organisation, regulation and motor planning; and the supplementary eye field (SEF) which is linked with the planning and control of the saccadic eye movements, allowing the eyes to continually focus on an object.

The researchers recruited a number of individuals to go through a visual decision-making activity involving flashing of lights. The participants were asked to guess where specifically the dominant light appeared according to what they think.

They found that even though the neural activity was linked with the three regions, the putative metacognitive activity that correlated decision-making to betting originated solely from the SEF.

The SEF, according to Sommer, is a complex area in the brain that is linked with motivational aspects of behaviour. If people think they’re about to receive something good, the neuronal activity tends to have higher level of SEF. And to keep getting those good things, there’s a need to compare what’s going on at the moment with what decisions were made in the past, he explained.

Because of this, it is impossible for healthy individuals to live at the moment. “It’s a nice thing to say in terms of seizing the day and enjoying life, but our inner lives and experiences are much richer than that." He said.

The researchers didn’t study whether the same brain areas work with people having mental disorders. Sommer is however interested to know whether any of the brain areas may be disrupted due to such disorders, like in the case of Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia where the flow of thoughts is disrupted and is distracted easily despite any efforts to keep it going. Because of this, people with such mental problems find it sustaining past memories which affect their behaviour later. This, according to Sommer, suggests a problem with the metacognition.


Source of this article:

Why Living in the Moment Is Impossible, University of Pittsburgh

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