A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams. ~John Barrymore
We often associate regret with old age – the tragic image of an elderly person feeling regretful over opportunities forever missed. Now, groundbreaking new brain research shows how this stereotypemay be true, at least for a portion of the elderly who are depressed. On the other hand, healthy agingmay involve the ability to regulate regret in the brain, and move on emotionally when there is nothing more that can be done. If we can teach depressed, older people to think like their more optimistic peers, we may be able to help them let go of regret. Read on to find out how the human brain processes regret.
How Our Brains Process Regret
Studies have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brain in real time while participants performed computer tasks that asked them to choose between different options for investing money. When participants were shown how they could have done better with alternative strategies (to prime regret), there was decreased activity in the ventral striatum, an area associated with processing rewards. There was also increased activity in the amygdala, part of the brain’s limbic system that generates immediate emotional response to threat. Interestingly, when the experiment was done with a computer making all the choices, these regret patterns were not found, suggesting that a sense of personal accountability is necessary for regret