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"Primal Screen" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Researchers at Brown University find that theta brainwave activity in the prefrontal cortex predicts how well people can overcome their innate biases telling them to act when they can obtain rewards and to remain inactive to avoid punishment.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Agree to disagree--with your brain.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

You and I have built-in biases to act when it can get us a reward, and lie low when it lets us avoid punishment. But in complex human interaction, sometimes those primal urges may steer us the wrong way. A study out of Brown University looks at the connection between theta brainwaves in the pre-frontal cortex and the ability to overcome one's own "intuition." "Ok, brain, I hear you, I got it--but I got this one."

(Sound effect: 90's video game) The team had 34 participants play a custom-designed computer game, instructing them to click or not click when they saw various symbols. Most found it easy when it was click to get a reward don't click to avoid a penalty, pretty instinctive. Where it became dicey was when they were asked to refrain from clicking to gain a reward--counter intuitive. And the success rate was much lower.

The main idea was to measure and correlate the amount of theta brain activity with our ability to overcome our Pavlovian bias. Turns out some of us are good at it; others not so much and the results can be predicted from the level of theta activity.

The researchers say if people can improve behavior by learning to modify theta activity, it could lead to a therapy for addiction, and have other app--(Sound effect: bell rings, interrupting) oh! Snack time.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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