The sought-after equanimity of "living in the moment" may be impossible, according to neuroscientists who've pinpointed a brain area responsible for using past decisions and outcomes to guide future behavior. The study, based on research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh and published August 9 in the professional journal Neuron, is the first of its kind to analyze signals associated with metacognition -- a person's ability to monitor and control cognition (a term cleverly described by researchers as "thinking about thinking.")
"The brain has to keep track of decisions and the outcomes they produce," said Marc Sommer, who did his research for the study as a University of Pittsburgh neuroscience faculty member and is now on the faculty at Duke University. "You need that continuity of thought," Sommer continued. "We are constantly keeping decisions in mind as we move through life, thinking about other things. We guessed it was analogous to working memory, which would point toward the prefrontal cortex."
Sommer predicted that neuronal correlates of metacognition resided in the same brain areas responsible for cognition, including the frontal cortex -- a part of the brain linked with personality expression, decision making, and social behavior. Sommer worked with Paul G. Middlebrooks, who did his research for the study at Pitt before he received his Pitt PhD in neuroscience in 2011; Middlebrooks is now a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University. The research team studied single neurons in vivo in three frontal cortical regions of the brain: the frontal eye field (associated with visual attention and eye movements), the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (responsible for motor planning, organization, and regulation), and the supplementary eye field (SEF) involved in the planning and control of saccadic eye movements, which are the extremely fast movements of the eye that allow it to continually refocus on an object.