Scientists have figured out how the brain decides it can control the situation

(ORDO NEWS) — The authors of a new study have shown that our subjective sense of control arises from the competition between two parallel learning processes.

One of them puts us in the place of the “spectator”, the other – in the place of the “actor”, and the brain processes both and chooses the one that more accurately predicts the situation.

Sometimes it can be difficult to understand whether we can control this or that situation. This ability is influenced by many factors, including our mental state. Often, high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression weaken the sense of control and make people believe that nothing they do matters, even when it really doesn’t.

For decades, scientists have been trying to uncover the cognitive mechanisms that provide a sense of control. Now researchers from Portugal and the Netherlands are closer to the answer.

The authors have developed a special experiment in the space of virtual reality. It was a house with several doors in each room.

It was possible to move around the house in one of two scenarios. In the first, “managed”, the color of the door depended on which room it led to (for example, the yellow door always led only to the bathroom, and the pink door to the living room).

In the “unmanaged” house, the order of the rooms was fixed (through any door in the kitchen one could get only to the bathroom, from the bathroom – only to the living room).

As the participants moved around the virtual home, the scientists switched between “managed” and “unmanaged” home scenarios without their knowledge. The subjects walked around the house for some time, after which they had to answer the question of which rooms were behind the two doors in front of them.

If the volunteers did not feel in control of the situation, they answered that both doors lead to the room they were supposed to enter according to the fixed scenario. Otherwise, they pointed to different rooms behind doors that matched their color.

The scientists explained the results by saying that the brains of the participants had two parallel processes of learning the roles of an “actor”, who could choose which room he wanted to go to by the color of the door, and a “spectator”, who got into a room determined by the sequence.

As the scenarios changed over the course of the experiment, the brain constantly compared the results of the “actor” and “spectator” models to determine which one gave the most accurate prediction.

After that, a stress factor – weak electric shocks – was added to the experiment to test its effect on the feeling of control. The contestants who received more hits tended to take the “spectator” position.

The higher their initial level of stress, the more they were affected by this stimulus. At the same time, people who could take actions to avoid being hit were better at implementing the “acting” behavior model.

The researchers proposed two hypotheses to explain this result. First, high levels of stress can trigger emotional processes that impair performance on cognitive tasks. Secondly, under stress, the role of the “spectator” seems to be more rational, since experience shows that the situation is uncontrollable.

The authors also assessed the neurophysiological basis of this process. The participants of the experiment performed the same task inside an MRI scanner, which recorded the work of their brain in real time.

The scientists found that neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex instantly captured the difference in prediction accuracy between the two learning models.

The posterior cingulate gyrus, temporo-parietal and prefrontal cortex were responsible for changing the decision. Thus, the brain compared two parallel processes and assessed its control over the situation.

The scientists now plan to investigate how this mechanism develops with age and how it is influenced by various factors, such as growing up in a stressful environment. In addition, its study in the context of mental disorders will help to understand why depression leads to the illusion of lack of control.

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