While visiting a local A&E as a child (don’t worry it gets cheerier, sort of) I was told that the back of your brain is involved in essential or at least very important processes such as breathing and vision, and the structures at the front of the brain are involved in more cognitive functions such as emotions and learning. It’s these frontal brain regions that can be analysed to see how we make decisions and some sneaky tactics can be used by supermarkets and shopping malls to engage our ‘impulse buying’ instincts. A study that looks into data, collected over 30 years by the University of Iowa, of patients with lesions in different areas of the prefrontal cortex has identified regions that are involved in decision making.
Lesions in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) were seen to affect cognitive control, making it difficult to keep focused and attentive. Patients with lesions in this area are easily distracted and when shopping they would struggle sticking to the task of buying only a few things; the dlPFC has also been linked to the ability to focus on and carry out specific tasks. Usually the way I feel after a long day of shopping with my mother.
Another area of the brain that was analysed known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) has been linked to risk and reward evaluation. This was shown as patients with lesions in this area don’t seem to have any neurological issues but when it comes to decision making they pick the option that has the quickest reward regardless of the risk, leading to impulsive personalities that often have difficulty with gambling and holding down a job.
Decision making is a balance of these two ‘cognitive control’ networks: “risk/reward” and “avoiding distractions”. If they are in sync as they are with most people then decision making shouldn’t present too much of a problem as you can weigh up the cost while not being distracted by the offers on crates of beer. I will admit though that I have been known to stare at a handbag for a good long while before convincing myself I could have it, wrestling with my vmPFC.
In many psychological conditions such as depression cognitive control has been seen to be affected (one of the symptoms is finding nothing enjoyable so if neither option seems to have any reward it doesn’t really matter which one is picked). Looking into these lesions can be used to develop ways to help mental health patients, however shoppers without prefrontal cortex lesions may still be tricked into buying another 10 mince pies they don’t need.
Supermarkets are always trying to find new ways to increase the weight of your basket and they have found out many things that have changed the way they layout their stores. An example of this is the fact that the milk or eggs are more often than not at the back corner of the store; it’s not an accident, they want you to walk past everything else and chuck the branded junk food into the basket. It can be slightly more unnerving than shop layout though, as shops are now getting techy and using cameras to see how long we are spending in the shops. Alarmingly fMRI is sometimes used in product development to see if the pleasure centres of our brains are activated by new products.
So what has this got to do with your rabbit? The prefrontal cortex has long been hailed the pinnacle of human evolution as it allows us to carry out ‘higher brain functions’ such as memory and learning. Your bunny does have a prefrontal cortex but it is not as developed so they will be no help in decided if that extra-large turkey will fit into your oven or if your Nan will like that scarf.
I know Christmas shopping is often horrid with the hordes of other grumpy people but give thanks to your prefrontal cortex because it would be a whole lot harder without it.
Gläscher J, Adolphs R, Damasio H, Bechara A, Rudrauf D, Calamia M, Paul LK, & Tranel D (2012). Lesion mapping of cognitive control and value-based decision making in the prefrontal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (36), 14681-6 PMID: 22908286