Professors at America's finest universities believe they've discovered the area of the brain lets us know when it's time to change our routine.
The part of the brain researchers pinpointed is called the posterior cingulate cortex. They found that the rate of neurons firing in this region became extremely pronounced just before changing a strong habit.
To discover this interesting phenomenon, researchers organized two tests for groups of rhesus macaque monkeys and compared their behaviors with their brainwaves. The first group was called "patch-leaving task" and the second was given the title "traveling salesmen."
The "patch-leaving task" monkeys were given two options in their study. First, they could create a fruit juice that was predictable but had diminishing returns over time. More adventurous macaques, however, could investigate for a new patch with possibly a greater amount of food.
Monkeys in the "traveling salesmen" experiment were placed in a lab with six locations to choose from, only two of which had food. One area had a ton of food, while the other only had a small reward.
The best pattern for success in the "traveling salesmen" test is to develop a successful routine and go around the locations in a circle. Most animals and insects in the wild move in this way. However, there are odd moments when an animal suddenly decides to change his/her routine and go out of order.
When the researchers looked at the monkeys' brain scans, they found that neural activity in the posterior cingulate cortex slowly built up while the monkeys were doing more predictable tasks. Once the neural levels reached a high level, the monkey was more prone to change his behavior.
This research suggests that new behaviors and new modes of thought might be driven by the amount of neural activity in the brain rather than external circumstances.
Although it might seem like studies on focused reward-driven tasks might be more useful for psychological counseling, this habit-breaking research could be just as important. Doctors and psychologists are already devising new experiments to help humans naturally get out of bad habits by stimulating this region of the brain.
For example, doctors are interested whether using activities that stimulate the posterior cingulate cortex like playing distracting games might help stimulate new thinking patterns. This could help indecisive people take risks or think more creatively.
Michael Platt, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, was the lead researcher on this study. He told reporters that his research reveals why some of the greatest creative geniuses are often "daydreamers." As Platt put it, "People who have more activity [in the posterior cingulate cortex] have more mind-wandering, and they tend to be more creative."
Platt went on to speculate on why our ancestors developed this creative impulse. Perhaps, he suggests, novelty and creativity are an adaptive evolutionary response to a world that's eternally in flux.
In addition to Dr. Platt, researchers from Yale, Duke, and Columbia contributed to this research. Both the National Institutes of Health and the National Eye Institute were official backers of Platt's research.
This study was published in the volume 96, issue 2 of Neuron. Anyone can find this article by looking up the title, "Posterior Cingulate Neurons Dynamically Signal Decisions to Disengage during Foraging."