Monkeys can play Monday morning quarterback too

May 25, 2011
Yale researchers show that monkeys can make the same sort of "what if" mental notes that humans do, such as in this game of rock paper scissors. Credit: Courtesy of Yale University

Regret has long been viewed as an exclusively human thought, one which helps prevent us from repeating bad choices but becomes debilitating when it triggers obsessive thoughts about past actions.

Now a new study by Yale University researchers shows that monkeys also can be Monday morning quarterbacks and visualize alternative, hypothetical outcomes. The findings, reported in the May 26 issue of the journal Neuron, pinpoint areas of the brain where this process takes place and may give scientists new clues into how to treat diseases such as depression and schizophrenia.

"Regret serves us well most of the time, by helping us recognize choices that lead to bad outcomes," said Daeyeol Lee, professor of neurobiology at Yale School of Medicine and the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience and co-author of the study. "But sometimes regret can be very damaging."

Regret essentially is the ability to recognize that alternate courses of action could have led to more favorable outcome. For instance, someone who bought a home at the height of the envisions a better outcome if she or he had rented a home or moved to a healthier market. We don't only learn by being rewarded or punished for specific actions, the way many psychologists once believed, Lee noted.

"Our brain is wired to run these hypothetical simulations all the time," Lee said. "If you try to learn only from the actual outcomes of your own experience, this represents only a tiny fraction of information you can get from your world."

Lee and co-author Hiroshi Abe, in the Department of , recorded in as they played a modified game of rock-paper-scissors, receiving large juice rewards for winning games, smaller rewards for tying and nothing for losing. Monkeys were more likely in the subsequent round to pick the winning symbol in the previous game – for instance selecting paper if a rock smashed scissors. In other words, they were able to imagine a different outcome.

The Yale team also found that neural activity in the brain area known as the prefrontal cortex reflects both rational and emotional aspects of regret. One of its subdivisions is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area previously implicated for other complex cognitive functions, such as working memory, and the in this area signal what action would have led to a better outcome. By contrast, the orbitofrontal cortex, another region in the prefrontal cortex, focuses more on the emotional aspects of regret. Knowing the neural home of regret may help researchers find drugs to treat mental illnesses in which patients obsess over past decisions that have led to poor outcomes, Lee said. He also notes that hallucination common in the patients of schizophrenia – sometimes losing the ability to discriminate the sources of voices – may be caused by the loss of ability to learn from both actual and hypothetical outcomes simultaneously.

Explore further: Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Related Stories

Brain activity encodes reward magnitude and delay during choice

Jul 09, 2008

Good things may come to those who wait, but research has proven that humans and animals actually prefer an immediate rather than a delayed reward. Now, a study published by Cell Press in the July 10 issue of the journal Neuron reveal ...

Why we learn more from our successes than our failures

Jul 29, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- If you've ever felt doomed to repeat your mistakes, researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory may have explained why: Brain cells may only learn from experience when we ...

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.