In a battle of wits, an area of prefrontal cortex gets a call to arms

Three hands showing rock, paper, and scissors gestures respectively.

Doing what has always worked in the past is a tried-and-true method of decision-making — until you run into an opponent who exploits those tendencies. Yale School of Medicine researchers report Sept. 18 in the journal Science Express that they have identified a distinct area of the brain that kicks in when you decide to bluff in a poker game or make an unconventional opening move in chess.

If you play rock-paper-scissors, you can’t be too predictable or you will lose,” said Daeyeol Lee, professor of neurobiology and psychology, a researcher for the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, and senior author of the paper. “In strategic thinking, you have to know when to deviate from old patterns.”

Lee and colleagues tracked the activity of individual neurons in the brain of monkeys that were playing against a computer for tokens that could be redeemed for juice. Just like humans, animals often repeated the same choices after winning and switched after losing.  Sometimes, however, the animals anticipated that such predictable choices would be exploited by the computer opponent, and altered their strategies accordingly. The group found that the dorsal medial frontal cortex of the animal became engaged when the animal applied such strategic reasoning to counter the computer.

We know a lot about how the brain makes simple decisions, but not how we make more complex choices between Strategy A or Strategy B,” Lee said.

Such strategic decision-making is a hallmark of high intelligence and allows humans to make better choices by utilizing our knowledge about the world more efficiently, he said.

Hopefully, this finding will help us improve the treatments for numerous mental illnesses frequently accompanied by impaired strategic thinking.” Lee said.

Hyojung Seo  of Yale is first author of the paper. Other authors are Xinying Cai and Christopher H. Donahue.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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