Living in the moment

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It is impossible for a healthy person to live in the moment according to neuroscientists who have pinpointed a brain area responsible for using past decisions and outcomes to guide future behavior. The study analyzed signals associated with metacognition, a person's ability to monitor and control their thoughts. The brain has to keep track of decisions and the outcomes they produce. You need that continuity of thought. We are constantly keeping decisions in mind as we move through life, thinking about other things. The research team 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. To learn where metacognition occurs in the brain, subjects performed a visual decision-making task that involved random flashing lights and a dominant light on a cardboard square. Participants were asked to remember and pinpoint where the dominant light appeared, guessing whether they were correct. The researchers found that while neural activity correlated with decisions and guesses in all three brain areas, the putative metacognitive activity that linked decisions to bets resided exclusively in the SEF (a complex area of the brain linked with motivational aspects of behavior). 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. Defining such concepts related to metacognition, like consciousness, has been difficult for decades. Studying metacognition is one step in a systematic process of working toward a better understanding of consciousness. The research of Marc Sommer and Paul G. Middlebrooks was provided by the University of Pittsburgh, the joint University of Pittsburgh-Carnegie Mellon University Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.