Researchers provide exciting first glimpse into the competitive brain

(Medical Xpress) -- While most of us have been wrapped up in the competitive spirit of the Olympic Games, two University of Otago researchers have been busy teasing out what exactly in the brain drives competitive behaviour.

Dr Kristin Hillman and Professor David Bilkey, both from the Department of Psychology, have found that in a specific region of the frontal cortex, called the , become active during decisions involving competitive effort.

The researchers have discovered that neurons in this region appear to store information on whether a course of action demands competition, what the of that competition will be, and critically, whether or not the competition is ‘worth it’ to achieve an end reward.

Their study, which appears online today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, is the first to examine how competitive behaviour is encoded by neurons in the .

The researchers used a novel experimental set-up for rats which mimics cost-benefit decisions that we humans face every day: do I choose option A which has a small but easily achievable reward, or do I choose option B which, although it provides the prospect of a larger reward, requires me to compete against a peer?

They found that in foraging rats, certain cortical neurons became more active when competitive scenarios like option B were considered and pursued.

Dr Hillman says the activity of these neurons appeared to encode when it was worth competing and when it was too risky.

For example, when up against a highly motivated or physically dominant competitor, a rat’s neural activity patterns changed markedly, she says.

“The resulting signal could be important for both driving competitive behaviour and also steering us away from risky situations where, although the reward might be large, the potential cost is too high.”

The study highlights a critical role for the in making choices that require investing competitive effort, and represents a pioneering move into understanding the brain mechanisms that produce competitive, ambitious behaviour.

“In theory, it also gives us a glimpse into what might be going on in our own brains, whether we are highly competitive Olympic athletes or just vying for the last treadmill at the gym,” says Dr Hillman.

More information: Hillman KL and Bilkey DK (2012) Neural encoding of competitive effort in the anterior cingulate cortex. Nature Neuroscience, DOI 10.1038/nn.3187 [epub ahead of print]

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Arcbird
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 13, 2012
Either the person who wrote this article or the science behind it itself is flawed. Sure thing that part of the brain helps and functions when competition is necessary, but to write that it's responsible for the producement of competitive behavior, is something very different. There is no human that is competitive from birth, that is something learned, and conditioned in from the environment around us. Namely, this society that promotes such behaviour.
evolution3
not rated yet Aug 13, 2012
There is no human that is competitive from birth, that is something learned, and conditioned in from the environment around us. Namely, this society that promotes such behaviour.


That sounds pretty behaviouristic in my opinion.Do you have references for that?And even if competitive behaviour is not shown from the beginning it doesn't have to be conditioned.There is much of neurological development going on in young brains(and even in grown ups) that is pretty much independant of conditioning effects.Take for example the ability to self reflect.It surely is not conditioned but children get to this stage only about the age of around 2 years(more or less).
R2Bacca
5 / 5 (1) Aug 13, 2012
There is no human that is competitive from birth, that is something learned,


Ever see the runt of a litter of cats? Competition in the natural world starts at birth.

You seem to forget that our society has only existed for a small portion of the total existence of homo sapiens. There was a time when we faced competition at birth, and if competition is "hard wired", then that mechanism still exists.

Our society only thinly veils our true nature.
Arcbird
1.5 / 5 (2) Aug 13, 2012
There is no human that is competitive from birth, that is something learned, and conditioned in from the environment around us. Namely, this society that promotes such behaviour.


That sounds pretty behaviouristic in my opinion.Do you have references for that?And even if competitive behaviour is not shown from the beginning it doesn't have to be conditioned.


There are plenty of people that have worked with this, Jacque Fresco from the Venus project for example, he's focused a lot of his research around this. As a very specific early example, say you have 2 daughters, and you pick one of them up in your lap, even that is conditioning towards competition. We get all sorts of stimulae from the environment that we're not aware of. That's why we must study what fosteres behaviour and what are the causes in the environment. The brain has no moral or ethical function that tells you what is right and what is wrong, it is a processing device based on influence from environment
Noumenal
not rated yet Aug 19, 2012
Our society only thinly veils our true nature.


Our 'true' nature. Haha, what does that even mean? I met a nun a while ago, she never acted out her 'true' nature. Seriously, claims like this are nearly as dogmatic as those that think our 'true' nature is derived in some way from God. Both at least, seem to answer the way a human being can go about regulating their lives. While I'm not much a fan of certain features of religion, I definitely find it more palatable than some of the garbage the other camp hold our 'nature' to be.

evolution3
not rated yet Aug 19, 2012
There are plenty of people that have worked with this, Jacque Fresco from the Venus project for example, he's focused a lot of his research around this. As a very specific early example, say you have 2 daughters, and you pick one of them up in your lap, even that is conditioning towards competition. We get all sorts of stimulae from the environment that we're not aware of. That's why we must study what fosteres behaviour and what are the causes in the environment. The brain has no moral or ethical function that tells you what is right and what is wrong, it is a processing device based on influence from environment.

That is an assertion.How can you differ between early conditioning, natal traits and neuronal development?