Psycho Babble

Your Brain On Risk

The neuroscience of world domination; or, what happens when bad science meets bad writing

By Jessica Love | October 18, 2012


On Sunday, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped from a helium balloon floating 24 miles above the surface of the earth. Thankfully, he was wearing a parachute. But during the five minutes he spent safely tumbling to earth at speeds exceeding 800 miles per hour, about 30 Americans used an illicit drug for the first time.

Given the legal, social, and health risks of using illegal substances, what leads users to make the choices they do? According to Albert Parker, professor of neuroscience at Ohio Tech, the brain is almost certainly involved. But, he cautions, we cannot know for sure. That’s because most of what neuroscientists understand about risk-taking comes from studies in which participants place fake bets using fake money. “Nobody knows what happens in the brain when people have to make decisions about drugs or sex or whether to major in the humanities,” he explains. “We have very little data from situations where the risks are real.”

Parker, who recently received a multi-million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Science to study naturalistic risk-taking, hopes to change all of this. To understand how the brain processes risk, he and his collaborators recruited participants to lie in MRI scanners while performing the riskiest task his university ethics board would approve: playing the board game Risk.

Twenty groups, each containing six participants, competed in an electronic version of the popular strategy game. Though the scanners used in the study were scattered across the state of Ohio, the computers inside them were linked to a single network, which allowed participants to compete against one another in real time. Games took, on average, six hours to play, and each group played a total of 10 games, providing researchers with approximately 7,200 hours of data. The richness of the dataset has allowed Parker and his research team to draw a number of exciting conclusions:

Neural data confirm that Asia is the most difficult continent to defend: researchers found that the longer a player holds Asia, the more activation is seen in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region associated with frustration and uncertainty.

Elimination from the game is associated with sharp, widespread activation all over the brain, as well as activation slightly to the right of the brain. Researchers prefer to interpret this as the first evidence for “loss aura,” or the physical manifestation of disappointment. They acknowledge, however, that the neural signature for loss aura is indistinguishable from the signature of a participant screaming and punching the inside of the scanner.

When a player loses a territory, greater activation is found in the anterior insula, a region also shown to activate when thinking about love. This initially surprised researchers, but Parker now believes it makes “a weird sort of sense.” Risk players, he argues, are displaying the classic signs of Stockholm Syndrome. Despite themselves, they are cheering the invading army on to victory.

Researchers have also identified a signal corresponding to how badly a player has to pee, and can now predict, within a minute’s accuracy, when he will wet himself.

Finally, of critical importance to Risk fans everywhere, whenever a player comes to the realization that world dominance can’t be achieved without first winning Australia, parts of the occipital lobe, a region associated with visual processing, are recruited. “It is as if the participants are literally seeing the game anew,” says Parker. “For years, we’ve known that most people experience this insight between their third and sixth time playing the game. We just didn’t know how the brain did it. Until now.”

Parker and his group have received additional funding to explore risk-taking in the boardroom. Using the game Monopoly, they hope to address critical questions about how the brain acquires real estate, squashes competition, differentiates between a small dog and a shoe, and processes disappointment after receiving a crappy Community Chest card.


This week’s column was co-written by Corey White, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Austin.

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