I’ve got news for those of us who thought that Italians just sat around wearing designer sunglasses and drinking fine coffee; it turns out we were wrong. This fMRI study by a group in Milan is a pearler, and I urge anyone who’s interested to have a look at it.
First was a look into empathy: these investigators wanted to know whether the same cortical areas that are activated in the first-hand experience of regret also become engaged when an individual is faced with the experience of regret in others. Participants in this study chose one of two gambles, which resulted in wins or losses (called the I play condition). They also observed the same sequence of events, this time experienced by another individual (the Other plays condition).
Regret requires high-level cognitive processing. We feel regret when the outcome we’re faced with is worse than the outcome we would have been faced with, had we made a different choice. Unlike basic emotions, regret ultimately stems from that comparison between alternative outcomes. Another hallmark of regret is the feeling of personal responsibility for the deliberate choices we make. It’s these two pre-requisites, these authors argue, which make regret distinct from the basic emotion of disappointment. This concept forms the basis for the two control conditions in this experiment; a computer programme randomly selected the gambles on behalf of the participant (I follow condition) or the other players (Other follows condition) respectively. Thus the participants felt no responsibility for the decisions made, and theoretically experienced disappointment as opposed to regret.
Given all these factors, it’s no surprise that the Results section of this paper is fairly extensive. I’ll just share some of the interesting bits here. While there were numerous activations brain-wide that were common to both negative emotions of regret and disappointment, there were some key differences. There were two brain areas which activated in regret, but not disappointment. They were the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex (vmPFC)—an area that seems to have a specific involvement with processing of complex emotions— and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)—which uses information about past unsuccessful behaviour to make future choices accordingly .
In the empathy investigation, the comparison between the I play and the Other plays conditions, several common areas of activation were found, namely the vmPFC, the ACC and the hippocampus. This provides us with evidence that these areas don’t just process directly-experienced regret, but are also activated in a mirror-like response to someone else’s regret.
The final comparison made in this study was between women and men in the two third-person scenarios—both the Other plays and the Other follows conditions—under the assumption that women are more empathic. Only one reference was given to support this assumption. But these investigators must have known what they were on about; their direct gender comparisons revealed consistently stronger activations for females than males in most brain areas.
So I admit that there’s great work going on up there, as evidenced by this well-designed study. I still like to think there were designer sunglasses or at the very least, leather loafers involved.
Flavia Di Pietro
Flavia Di Pietro is a PhD student in the Body and Mind Research Group, Sydney. She is investigating the development of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) after wrist fracture. Specifically, Flavia’s PhD involves brain scanning people who are in a higher than usual amount of pain in the first 3 weeks after the fracture, and then following them for a few months. Her question concerns whether or not there are changes in brain activation patterns that emerge before the CRPS does and if so, what do they tell us about the condition? Here is Flavia talking about what she does and a link to her published research. BiM author’s downloadable PDFs can be found here.
 Canessa N, Motterlini M, Di Dio C, Perani D, Scifo P, et al. 2009 Understanding Others’ Regret: A fMRI Study. PLoS ONE 4(10): e7402.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007402
 Bush, G., Luu, P., & Posner, M. (2000). Cognitive and emotional influences in anterior cingulate cortex Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4 (6), 215-222 DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(00)01483-2