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What can rewards tell us about innovation?

04.10.2013
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ImpulsiveThere's a famous experiment conducted in the 60's that looked at delayed gratification.  The experiment put some marshmallows in front of a child.  They were told that they could eat the marshmallow now, but if they waited a bit they could receive extra marshmallows.  Around 1/3 of the children in the experiment managed to wait the 15 minutes asked of them before they gave in to temptation.  Research has linked the ability to delay gratification in the experiment to success later in life.

Could such decisions have their origins in our neurology though?  A study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience set out to explore.

“Activity in one part of the brain, the anterior prefrontal cortex , seems to show whether you’re getting pleasure from thinking about the future reward you are about to receive,” explains study co-author Todd Braver, professor of psychology in at Washington University in St. Louis. “People can relate to this idea that when you know something good is coming, just that waiting can feel pleasurable.”

The study aimed to show whether impulsive people that found waiting for a reward very difficult saw different parts of the brain triggered when they were in the waiting state.

The study gave people a drink of fruit juice that they could either have right away, or after a minutes wait, so not a huge wait, but was it enough to trigger a shift in brain activity?

The results were fascinating, and showed that in impulsive people, an area of the brain called the Ventral Striatum (VS) saw a lot of activity as the delayed reward grew ever closer.  In people thought of as more patient however, this area remained much more constant.

The researchers suggested that the differences can be interpreted as an indication of how people perceived the reward.  In patient people they suggested that the reward remained just as enticing before they waited as when they actually received it.  In impulsive people however, they weren't very excited to begin with, but became more so as the reward became closer.

“This gradual increase may reflect impatience or excessive anticipation of the upcoming reward in impulsive individuals,” says lead author Koji Jimura, a former postdoctoral scholar in Braver’s lab.

Are impulsive people bad innovators?

Another interesting finding concerned the anterior prefrontal cortex (aPFC).  This is believed to be the part of the brain concerned with thinking about the future.  As you might imagine, this part of the brain saw more activity in patient people than in impulsive ones, as they took pleasure from what was to come.  The wait was literally as exciting as the reward itself.

“The aPFC appears to allow you to create a mental simulation of the future. It helps you consider what it’ll be like getting the future reward. In this way, you can get access to the utility and satisfaction in the present,” says Braver.

It's what economists refer to as anticipatory utility.  The study is kinda saying therefore that impulsive folks appear to have difficulty imagining the future because their brain prefers to receive rewards straight away.

Does this mean that impulsive people are not very good at innovation or the kind of thinking that requires them to look to the future rather than the present?  It kinda goes against the common perception of innovative people who are able to go with their gut feelings on things and act spontaneously.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Reprinted with permission