Imagine there's a busy, dangerous motorway running through your neighbourhood. You know that accidents occur on a regular basis. Do you cross the street without looking both ways, or do you wait until you are certain it's safe to cross? How you respond will depend on signals from your environment – but it will also depend on your own assessment of the situation. And the relationship between those two things is not always dictated by logic, Matthijs Vink has demonstrated using a new research method.
New research method shows how facts and expectations influence behaviour
Every brain anticipates differently
A great deal of brain research assumes the average within a group. Yet in this study, for the first time, Vink and his research group examined individual participants: how do individuals react in different situations, based both on environmental cues and what they themselves think will happen? ‘When you see the brake lights of the car in front of you, that's a signal: stop now,’ Vink explains. ‘But on top of that, you have your own expectations: I think the car will stop, or I think it won't. The better you are able to predict what will happen, the better you can prepare yourself.’
How we calculate risks or likelihood is different for everyone. Some people are reckless, others cautious. But the expectations of a given individual can also vary based on the situation. Vink studied this phenomenon among a group of students: Each of them was assigned a task on a computer, where they had to halt the progress of a ‘loading’ bar at a certain point by pressing a button. ‘But sometimes the bar stopped loading by itself before it reached that point, and they were not supposed to press the button. We indicated the likelihood that the bar would stop on its own using a system of different colours.’
Vink and his team analysed not only the differences between the students, but how the probability calculation of the same student could vary between turns as well. ‘Say that the colour yellow means there's a 25% chance the bar will stop on its own. If you've watched it load three times and nothing's happened, on the fourth try, you might think: this time, it'll stop.’ The researchers accounted for variation between the individuals. They used an MRI to see what was going on in the test subjects' brains. Vink and his team showed that how the different areas of the brain cooperated depended not only on the objective likelihood that the bar would stop on its own, but also on the subjects' personal assumptions.
The publication about their research made the ‘top 10 list’ of most frequently cited articles from the European Journal of Neuroscience. So how does Vink explain his success? ‘This is the first time that someone has done this. I expect that in future, more people will conduct analyses in this way.’ A replication of the study is scheduled for publication in the European Journal of Neuroscience soon, lending additional credence to his findings. He sees numerous possibilities for expanding the study as well.
Vink is introducing a pilot at a number of primary schools in the near future: ‘We're going to try out the same task, this time with children. Children and adolescents often feel that nothing bad can happen to them, even though logically they know that their choices can come back to bite them.’ Why is this true? ‘Children don't have enough life experience yet. They assess situations differently than adults, who have gained wisdom through trial and error, heartache and lived experience. But it has to do with brain development as well.’
Because, as it turns out: even though children know exactly what will happen next, their brains do not display the same response to information as an adult brain would. ‘We also use a task where the participant can win money. In adults, the reward system in their brains is activated just by the expectation of winning; but for children, that doesn't happen until they get the money. While children understand that they can win, they simply don't display the same behaviour and brain activity as adults. That's something we're hoping to explore further in the coming years.’
If the primary school pilot is a success, Vink wants to pursue the possibility of applying his experimental task in the Utrecht-based YOUth study. This study is tracking the development of a large group of children: ‘Using this method, we're able to distinguish differences between children at the individual level, and see what's going on in their brains. The advantage of the YOUth study is that it offers you a huge sample of 6,000 children – all those individual variations provide a great deal of information.’
The areas of the brain involved in this mechanism develop at different rates as we mature: this is one of the reasons that adolescents behave so impulsively. It all evens out eventually when we become adults. For some people, however, the process goes amiss: ‘We have repeatedly shown that these areas of the brain are much less active in people with schizophrenia.’ The idea is to compare various groups with one another. ‘I have initiated a study that looks at how the brains of children whose parents have psychiatric issues develop. By combining this knowledge with that gained from the YOUth study, we can get a better idea of how and when to intervene.’
Dynamics of Youth
Dr. Matthijs Vink is associated with Dynamics of Youth, one of University's four strategic themes. Dynamics of Youth combines excellent child research from all seven faculties. Within Dynamics of Youth, researchers from different disciplines integrate their expertise to answer crucial questions for future generations. How can we help our children develop into balanced individuals, that are able to function successfully in a rapidly changing environment?