10.04.2017 change 10.04.2017

Risk brake in our brain

The engine that drives us to take risks is, among other things, the dopamine system in our brain. Fortunately, we also have pretty good brakes, such as the amygdala. It keeps the dopamine system in check and allows us to analyse the situation instead of thoughtlessly taking a risk.

Why do we like to take risks? What motivates us to leave the comfort zone and engage in dangerous activities? The answer seems to be associated with our tendency to win prizes" - explained Dr. Szymon Wichary, psychologist at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Neuromodulators such as dopamine play a particular role in shaping our tendency to seek rewards and take risks. Together with other neuromodulators - including noradrenaline and acetylcholine - dopamine is responsible for stimulating the cerebral cortex, maintaining attention and concentration.

The dopamine system in the brain makes us stimulated and motivated to act. It is more active when we know we can gain more. But there is a downside, because with excessive stimulation we focus on reward and forget about the dangers. That\'s why many of us underestimate the danger. This behaviour is observed in casino players who ignore the possibility of losing and consequently lose large sums of money.

Other substances, such as opioids or sex hormones, also affect the action of neuromodulators, shaping our tendency to take risks. The opioid system plays a key role in the processing of pain stimuli, the development and resistance to pain, but also the enjoyment of eating, running or sex. Activation of this system is the basis for the action of morphine, heroin and alcohol, which is why our body becomes dependent on these substances so easily.

This system, according to Dr. Wichary, is linked to the dopamine system, which contains hot spots that respond to opioids and are associated with the feeling of satisfaction after receiving a reward. Activation of this system (for example by heroin or alcohol) is also the basis for risk-taking as it translates into the activation of the dopaminergic system.

Neuromodulators are also affected by sex hormones (testosterone, estrogens). Testosterone has a particularly important role. Studies have shown that the administration of testosterone increases the tendency to take risks. This is associated with a stronger activation of the dopaminergic system and reduced activation of fear-inducing brain structures" - reads the release sent by the University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

But why are we usually able to see the dangers and costs of a given activity and analyse the situation before we take risk without a thought? "The dopamine system can be compared to an engine, but there are also brakes in our brains - places that keep the dopamine system in check, such as the amygdala, the right prefrontal cortex. In particular the prefrontal cortex becomes more active in the face of less obvious possibilities. It allows to see the dangers and make a balanced analysis of our decisions" - explained Dr. Wichary.

According to Dr. Wichary, the study of these complex systems and their impact on our behaviour is a fascinating adventure that brings us valuable insights to help us understand our weaknesses - the tendency to succumb to disease, addictions and behaviours that can harm us. "The analysis of these phenomena demonstrates that our behaviour is governed by primal mechanisms, but we can control it through the cerebral cortex, which is the latest invention of evolution" - he added.

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