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Living in the Moment is Practically Impossible Because of Past Experiences

Update Date: Aug 10, 2012 07:47 AM EDT

Although each one of us tries hard to 'live in the moment', as that thought seems key to happiness, it may not be practically possible, researchers say. Neuroscientists have discovered a particular brain area that guides our future behavior using past instances.

The study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh is the first study to analyze signals associated with metacognition-a person's ability to monitor and control cognition, the press release states. 

"The brain has to keep track of decisions and the outcomes they produce," said Marc Sommer, who did his research for the study as a University of Pittsburgh neuroscience faculty member and is now on the faculty at Duke University. "You need that continuity of thought," Sommer continued. "We are constantly keeping decisions in mind as we move through life, thinking about other things. We guessed it was analogous to working memory, which would point toward the prefrontal cortex." 

The team of researchers studied single neurons in vivo in three frontal cortical regions of the brain: the frontal eye field (associated with visual attention and eye movements), the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (responsible for motor planning, organization, and regulation), and the supplementary eye field (SEF) involved in the planning and control of saccadic eye movements, which are the extremely fast movements of the eye that allow it to continually refocus on an object. 

In order to find the exact location at which metacognition occurs in the brain, the researchers gave the participants a visual decision-making task. 

For the task random and dominant lights were flashed on a cardboard square and the participants were asked to remember and pinpoint where the dominant light appeared, guessing whether they were correct. 

The findings revealed that while neural activity were associated with decisions and guesses in all three brain areas, the putative metacognitive activity that linked decisions to bets resided exclusively in the SEF. 

"The SEF is a complex area [of the brain] linked with motivational aspects of behavior," said Sommer. "If we think we're going to receive something good, neuronal activity tends to be high in SEF. People want good things in life, and to keep getting those good things, they have to compare what's going on now versus the decisions made in the past." 

According to Sommer, studying metacognition reduces the trouble of studying a "train of thought" and turns it into a rather simpler component: examining how one cognitive process influences another, Medical Xpress reports. 

"Why aren't our thoughts independent of each other? Why don't we just live in the moment? For a healthy person, it's impossible to live in the moment. It's a nice thing to say in terms of seizing the day and enjoying life, but our inner lives and experiences are much richer than that." 

This study is applicable for people who are mentally fit and healthy. Sommer says he is interested in learning how perhaps in people with mental disorders; this brain area might be disrupted. 

"With schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease, there is a fracturing of the thought process. It is constantly disrupted, and despite trying to keep a thought going, one is distracted very easily," Sommers said. "Patients with these disorders have trouble sustaining a memory of past decisions to guide later behavior, suggesting a problem with metacognition."

The study was published today in the professional journal Neuron and reported by Medical Xpress.

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