A new study shows the human brain is all about winning. Literally. By analysing functional magnetic resonance imaging in a new way, Scientists at Yale found for the first time that almost every area in the brain becomes active when winning or losing is at stake.
The researchers had study subjects play games like rock-paper-scissors. While previous work showed that specific reward centres in the brain were mainly activated during such activity, this new study shows that the majority of the brain was turned on.
The scientists say it makes sense because the brain’s overall purpose is to maximise our chances of survival and reproduction. Therefore, reward should be important for all cognitive functions.
The data will appear in the October 6 issue of the journal Neuron. The researchers used a technique called multi-voxel pattern analysis to study fMRI data. Instead of comparing signal strength in specific regions of the brain, the new analysis scanned for patterns in brain activity.
Reward and punishment have long been associated with a region at the centre of the brain called the basal ganglia, which distributes the neurotransmitter dopamine. But the Yale researches wondered if some brain regions were being left out. Turns out they were correct.
“We aren’t saying that the dopamine network is not the core system of reward processing in the brain,” said Timothy Vickery, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology and lead author of the study, in a press release. “Our novel point is that this information makes it way throughout the entire brain in a much more far-reaching manner than previously thought.”