New research has shown how a certain region of the brain helps predict trends and how it sees pattern in random things.
Humans need to be adaptive to survive. The brain has to make quick decisions regarding the environment. At times it has to even predict what will happen next based on insufficient data. The very front part of the brain called as frontopolar cortex is associated with this task.
Previous research has shown that frontopolar cortext is active when people are switching between complex tasks and they need to hold the information regarding one task in alternative memory while switching.
The present study was based on very rare patients with damage to the frontal part of the brain.
"We gave the patients four slot machines from which to pick in order to win money. Unbeknownst to the patients, the probability of getting money from a particular slot machine gradually and unpredictably changed during the experiment. Finding the strategy that pays the most in the long run is a surprisingly difficult problem to solve, and one we hypothesized would require the frontopolar cortex," said Christopher Kovach, Ph.D., UI post-doctoral fellow in neurosurgery and author of the study.
However, people with damaged frontopolar cortex were able to predict and win money despite the fact that the very area that is known to help make predictions was damaged.
Researchers found that healthy controls won by making assumptions based on recent trends.
"But when we compared their behavior to that of subjects with intact frontal lobe, we found they used a different set of assumptions about how the payoffs changed over time. Both groups based their decisions on how much they had recently won from each slot machine, but healthy comparison subjects pursued a more elaborate strategy, which involved predicting the direction that payoffs were moving based on recent trends. This points towards a specific role for the frontopolar cortex in extrapolating recent trends," Kovach said.
The study results "argue that the frontopolar cortex helps us to make short-term predictions about what will happen next—a strategy particularly useful in environments that change rapidly such as the stock market or most social settings," says Ralph Adolphs, study co-author.
Researchers found that the strategy used by the patients with damaged frontopolar region was better than the strategy adopted by healthy participants.
"The healthy comparison subjects seemed to perceive trends in what was just random noise," Kovach says.
At times, the brain might just be fooling us by making us believe that there is a trend or a pattern in random things.
"To the best of my knowledge this is the first study which links a normal tendency to see a nonexistent pattern in random noise, a type of cognitive bias, to a particular brain region," Kovach notes.