Following the Asian tsunami, scientists struggled to explain reports that primitive aboriginal tribesmen had somehow sensed the impending danger in time to join wild animals in a life-saving flight to higher ground.
While some scientists discount the existence of a sixth sense for danger, new research from Washington University in St. Louis has identified a brain region that clearly acts as an early warning system — one that monitors environmental cues, weighs possible consequences and helps us adjust our behavior to avoid dangerous situations.
“Our brains are better at picking up subtle warning signs than we previously thought,” said Joshua Brown, Ph.D., a research associate in psychology in Arts & Sciences and co-author of a study on these findings in the Feb. 18 issue of the journal Science.
The findings offer rigorous scientific evidence for a new way of conceptualizing the complex executive control processes taking place in and around the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a brain area located near the top of the frontal lobes and along the walls that divide the left and right hemispheres.
“In the past, we found activity in the ACC when people had to make a difficult decision among mutually exclusive options, or after they made a mistake,” Brown said. “But now we find that this brain region can actually learn to recognize when you might make a mistake, even before a difficult decision has to be made. So the ACC appears to act as an early warning system — it learns to warn us in advance when our behavior might lead to a negative outcome, so that we can be more careful and avoid making a mistake.”
Implications for mental illness
The ACC has been the focus of intensive scientific research in recent years because it plays a critical role in the brain’s processing of especially complex and challenging cognitive tasks. Abnormalities in the region are closely associated with a host of serious mental problems, including schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
By providing a clearer picture of the cognitive mechanisms by which we self monitor and control our behavior, the study is an important step in efforts to develop more effective treatments for mental illness. It also provides a new way of understanding inappropriate behaviors that often accompany mental illnesses.
“Our results suggest how impairment of the ACC mechanisms in schizophrenia can lead to breakdowns in the early warning system, so that the brain fails to pre-empt or control inappropriate behavior,” Brown said. “On the other hand, in individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the ACC might warn of an impending problem even when no problem is imminent.”
“Interestingly, we also found evidence that the same neurotransmitter involved in drug addiction and Parkinson’s disease, namely dopamine, seems to play a key role in training the ACC to recognize when to send the early warning signal,” he added.
Known to be an important component of the brain’s executive control system, the ACC is believed to help mediate between cold, hard, fact-based reasoning and emotional responses, such as love, fear or anticipation.
“For a long time we’ve been interested in how the brain figures out how to integrate cognitive information about the world with our emotions, how we feel about something,” Brown said. “For many reasons, people think the ACC might be the brain structure responsible for converging these different signals. It seems to be an area that’s involved in deciding what information gets prioritized in the decision-making process. It seems able to link motivational and affect information – things like goodness or badness – and to use this information to bring about changes in cognition, to alter how we think about things.”
New paradigm for brain’s “oops” region
While there is growing consensus about the important role played by the cingulate in complex thoughts and feelings, there are competing theories regarding the cognitive mechanisms that underlie activity there.
Recent studies have documented spikes of activity in the ACC just as people realize that they’ve made a mistake of some kind, a sensation some describe as the “oops” moment (or, in more informal terms, as the “Oh S***” response). Theories based on these findings suggest that the primary role of the ACC is to help detect and subsequently correct mistakes or, alternatively, to detect the state of high-conflict that often accompanies mistakes”
Brown’s study, co-authored with Todd Braver, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, offers compelling evidence that the ACC is better understood as a pre-emptive early warning system, one that is actively working to help us anticipate the potential for mistakes and thus avoid them altogether.
“We started with the premise that perhaps the cingulate was not responding to the detection of an error or state of conflict, but maybe instead what the cingulate is detecting is the likelihood of making an error,” Brown said. “We wanted to see if the cingulate would become more active even in situations where no conflict is presented and no errors are made, but the potential for error is still higher than normal”
To test their hypothesis, Brown and Braver developed an experiment requiring healthy young people to respond to a series of cues on a computer screen. Participants were presented with either a white or a blue dash, which soon changed into a small arrow pointing either right or left. They were instructed to quickly push one of two buttons depending on the arrow’s direction. To simulate conflict, researchers occasionally slipped in a larger second arrow that required participants to change gears and push the opposite button.
“The idea is that at some point you have these competing tendencies – to push the right or left button — and both are active in brain at same time, which creates conflict,” explains Brown. “Some theories suggest that whenever you see these two arrows, then that drives this state of conflict and it’s the state of conflict that is being detected by the cingulate.”
By increasing the delay before presentation of the larger second arrow, researchers raised the odds that an individual would reach “the point of no return” and thus be unable to change gears in time to avoid pushing the wrong button. They then adjusted the delay time over many trials so that each participant eventually exhibited error rates of about 50 percent when provided with an initial blue priming dash, compared with error rates of only 4 percent when presented with a white priming dash.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers captured images of brain activity at 2.5-second intervals throughout the experiment.
“We didn’t tell them that the white or blue cue offered any clue about their likelihood of making an error on any particular trial, but by the end of the session, some of them had begun to figure it out, at least on a subconscious level,” Brown said.
Even among those who remained relatively unaware of the blue cue’s significance, researchers found that simply showing the blue color was eventually enough to spark increased activity in the cingulate, and that this effect strengthened over time as the subject became more familiar with the task. Thus, brain imaging confirmed that the ACC had “learned” the significance of the blue cue, and had begun, at least subconsciously, to adjust behaviors accordingly, the study found.
“It appears that this area of the brain is somehow figuring out things without you necessarily having to be consciously aware of it,” Brown said. “It makes sense that this mechanism exists because there are plenty of situations in our everyday lives that require the brain to monitor subtle changes in our environment and adjust our behavior, even in cases where we may not be necessarily aware of the conditions that prompted the adjustment. In some cases, the brain’s ability to monitor subtle environmental changes and make adjustments may actually be even more robust if it takes place on a subconscious level.”
Computer model of brain spurs new discoveries
In addition to its findings, the study is significant within scientific circles because of its use of sophisticated computer models to accurately predict the patterns of brain activation that would be sparked by the experiment, patterns only later confirmed by the imaging data from actual real-world trials.
“We started by building a detailed computer simulation of the ACC, and then we found that the computer predicted the existence of the early warning signal in ACC,” Brown said. “This was an exciting result, but we still needed to test the prediction in humans to demonstrate that the model prediction was correct.”
The researchers also tested their theory using another computer model that had been previously developed to support an existing theory of the ACC as a system focused on conflict resolution.
“By simulating both models we could then adjudicate between them and do so in a way where we forced each one to make predictions that we only tested after the fact,” Brown said. “By integrating the theory, the computational simulation and then the fMRI testing, we are providing other scientists with some very rigorous evidence that our new theory is accurate.”
During the last two decades, as computers have become much more powerful, computer modeling has become an increasingly powerful tool for understanding the brain, said Brown, noting that findings from this study offer a nice example of how computer models of the brain can lead to new discoveries.
“In fact, our computer model also makes some other exciting predictions about how the ACC works, but we haven’t had an opportunity to test them yet,” Brown said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Evolution has programmed us to be on the lookout for danger.
Without us knowing it, our amygdala – the “threat detector” and one of the oldest and more primitive parts of the brain – is constantly scanning our environment to assess our level of safety and alert us to any signs of trouble.
A new theory suggests that the anterior cingulate cortex, described by some scientists as part of the brain's “oops” center, may actually function as an early warning system — one that works at a subconscious level to help us recognize and avoid high-risk situations.What is the function of the frontal lobe of the brain? ›
The frontal lobes are important for voluntary movement, expressive language and for managing higher level executive functions. Executive functions refer to a collection of cognitive skills including the capacity to plan, organise, initiate, self-monitor and control one's responses in order to achieve a goal.What does the cortex of the brain do? ›
Your cortex is involved in higher processes in the human brain, including memory, thinking, learning, reasoning, problem-solving, emotions, consciousness and functions related to your senses.What is the logic center of the brain called? ›
The frontal lobe is at the front of the head and is responsible for planning, organisation, logical thinking, reasoning, and managing emotions.What part of the brain controls memory and concentration? ›
The prefrontal cortex plays an important part in memory, intelligence, concentration, temper and personality.
The cerebellum's job is to process procedural memories; the hippocampus is where new memories are encoded; the amygdala helps determine what memories to store, and it plays a part in determining where the memories are stored based on whether we have a strong or weak emotional response to the event.What is the cerebellum for? ›
(SAYR-eh-BEH-lum) The portion of the brain in the back of the head between the cerebrum and the brain stem. The cerebellum controls balance for walking and standing, and other complex motor functions. Enlarge. Anatomy of the brain, showing the cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem, and other parts of the brain.What is the function of the medulla? ›
Your medulla is where your cardiovascular and respiratory systems link together into a united system that controls your heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and more. Manages other automatic processes. These are things that your body often does without you having to think about them.What is the parietal lobe responsible for? ›
Your brain's parietal lobe is a key part of your understanding of the world around you. It processes your sense of touch and assembles input from your other senses into a form you can use. Your parietal lobe also helps you understand where you are in relation to other things that your senses are picking up around you.
The amygdala is commonly thought to form the core of a neural system for processing fearful and threatening stimuli (4), including detection of threat and activation of appropriate fear-related behaviors in response to threatening or dangerous stimuli.What are the 3 types of the brain? ›
The brain can be divided into three basic units: the forebrain, the midbrain, and the hindbrain.What are the 4 lobes of the brain and their function? ›
The four lobes of the cerebral cortex are frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe and occipital lobe. Their functions are as follows: Frontal lobe − It is responsible for cognitive functions such as attention, thinking, memory, reasoning and learning. It also inhibits the autonomic and emotional responses.Where is the amygdala? ›
The amygdala is located in the medial temporal lobe, just anterior to (in front of) the hippocampus. Similar to the hippocampus, the amygdala is a paired structure, with one located in each hemisphere of the brain.What are the 6 functions of the brain? ›
- Thoughts and decisions.
- Memories and emotions.
- Movements (motor function), balance and coordination.
- Perception of various sensations including pain.
- Automatic behavior such as breathing, heart rate, sleep and temperature control.
- Regulation of organ function.
- Speech and language functions.
The cerebrum controls: initiation of movement, coordination of movement, temperature, touch, vision, hearing, judgment, reasoning, problem solving, emotions, and learning. The cerebrum is responsible for communication (speaking and writing), memory, abstract thought, and appreciation for music and art. Brainstem.What is temporal cortex? ›
The temporal lobe of the brain is often referred to as the neocortex. It forms the cerebral cortex in conjunction with the occipital lobe, the parietal lobe, and the frontal lobe. It is located mainly in the middle cranial fossa, a space located close to the skull base.Which of the three parts of the brain involved in memory processing is the where new memories are encoded? ›
The cerebellum's job is to process procedural memories; the hippocampus is where new memories are encoded; the amygdala helps determine what memories to store, and it plays a part in determining where the memories are stored based on whether we have a strong or weak emotional response to the event.What are the three primary sites of memory functions of the brain? ›
For explicit memories – which are about events that happened to you (episodic), as well as general facts and information (semantic) – there are three important areas of the brain: the hippocampus, the neocortex and the amygdala.What does the cerebellum do for memory? ›
These activations confirm a cognitive role for the cerebellum, which may participate in an interactive cortical-cerebellar network that initiates and monitors the conscious retrieval of episodic memory.
The brain stem controls the body's involuntary functions that are essential for survival, such as breathing and heart rate.What part of the brain raises the alarm for when in danger? ›
The amygdala, which we call the brain's alarm, is a tiny, almond shaped region in the limbic system (the emotional part) of the brain. It's primary function is to call you to attention, and in an emergency, to mobilize or shut-down your body and mind so that you'll survive.What are 3 things the brain controls? ›
The brain controls thoughts, memory and speech, arm and leg movements and the function of many organs within the body. It also determines how people respond to stressful situations (i.e. writing of an exam, loss of a job, birth of a child, illness, etc.) by regulating heart and breathing rates.What are the 3 major parts of the brain and their functions? ›
- The cerebrum fills up most of your skull. It is involved in remembering, problem solving, thinking, and feeling. ...
- The cerebellum sits at the back of your head, under the cerebrum. It controls coordination and balance.
- The brain stem sits beneath your cerebrum in front of your cerebellum.