Now, a team of University of Michigan researchers has looked inside the human brain and captured the instant when someone makes a costly mistake. What they've found is interesting by itself, but may also help scientists understand mental health problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.
In general, the U-M scientists found that a particular part of the brain called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, or rACC, becomes much more active when a person realizes he or she has made an error that carries consequences for instance, losing money.
By contrast, the same area of the brain doesn't show the same level of activity when the mistake doesn't carry a penalty, or even when a correct action carries a reward. The rACC is thought to be involved with emotional responses, and scientists had suspected it might also be involved in response to costly errors. But this is the first brain-imaging study to test that idea.
Interestingly, the U-M team had previously shown that the rACC area became much more active in response to a no-penalty error in the brains of a small group of OCD patients, compared to people without the condition. OCD is often characterized by an untoward anxiety or fear about errors or failures in certain aspects of everyday life, with repetitive patterns of behavior to ward off or prevent such events.
The new research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, involved 12 healthy adults who had their brains scanned using a powerful functional MRI (fMRI) imaging machine, while they were asked to respond to a series of 360 visual-based tests.