Brain Mechanisms for Making, Breaking, and Changing Rules

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Abstract

Individuals differ widely, and the same person varies over time, in their tendency to seek maximum information versus their tendency to follow the simplest heuristics. Neuroimaging studies suggest which brain regions might mediate the balance between knowledge maximization and heuristic simplification. The amygdala is more activated in individuals who use primitive heuristics, whereas two areas of the frontal lobes are more activated in individuals with a strong knowledge drive: one area involved in detecting risk or conflict, and another involved in choosing task-appropriate responses. Both of these motivations have engineering uses. There is benefit to understanding a situation at a high enough level to respond in a flexible manner when the context is complex and time allows detailed consideration. Yet simplifying heuristics can yield benefits when the context is routine or when time is limited.