Willing to Wait for Your Treat? Connected Parts of Your Brain Decide

Are you an icing first or a cake?

Don't know about you but I always save the icing for last.  It's my favorite (I could eat a whole bowlful of that alone!).  I can't get over the people who scrape it off.

A new study has found the specific parts of the brain involved in decisions that call for delayed gratification. Researchers discovered that the hippocampus (associated with memory) and the nucleus accumbens (associated with pleasure) work together in making critical decisions of this type, where time plays a role. The researchers showed that when these two structures were effectively ‘disconnected’ in the brain, there is a disruption of decisions related to delayed gratification.

Simply put,  scientists have figured out that, unless these parts of the brain are connected, we're pretty much willing to wait for a reward, but only for so long.

"This is a type of decision-making that many of us grapple with in daily life, particularly the very young, the very old, and those with brain disease,” says Prof. Yogita Chudasama, of McGill’s Psychology Department and the lead researcher on the paper,at newswise.com. “In some ways this relationship makes sense; the hippocampus is thought to have a role in future planning, and the nucleus accumbens is a 'reward' center and a major recipient of dopamine, a chemical responsible for transmitting signals related to pleasure and reward, but we couldn’t have imagined that the results would be so clear."

And how did they figure this out?  With rats, of course.

The researchers worked with rats trained to make choices between stimuli that would result in their receiving different amounts of rewards, after varying periods of time. The rats were asked to choose between two identical visual shapes by pressing their nose against one of them on a touchscreen (similar to an iPad), in exchange for rewards in the form of sugar pellets. Like most humans, rats have a sweet tooth.
 
With time, rats learned to negotiate a trade-off between a small reward (1 sugar pellet) delivered immediately and a large reward (4 sugar pellets) delivered after a delay. The researchers discovered that the average rat, like the average human, is willing to wait a bit for a larger reward, but only for a certain period of time, and only if the reward is large enough.

However, following disruption of the circuit between the two parts of the brain, the rats became impatient and unwilling to wait, even for a few seconds. They always selected the immediate reward despite its smaller size.

So what does this mean for us?  Pray the two parts of your brain stay connected!

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