We all have days when we feel clouded with indecision, and almost wish someone would take the decision out of our hands. But during an episode of depression
, this can take on a more sinister and relentless character. Similarly, some people just seem to naturally relish opportunities to take decisions, whereas others tend to feel more daunted.
As part of a multicentre study across Scotland, we have taken a look
at the impact of both mood and personality on how we value being able to personally make decisions, using functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain. We asked 122 people with no history of mental illness to learn through trial and error which of 2 coloured cards was more likely to lead to a rewarding outcome. Half of the time the participant themselves got to choose. In the other half, the computer instructed them which colour to choose. We were interested to see how people value positive outcomes based on their own personally-driven decisions, versus those that are decided for them by the computer.
We expected that this would vary from person to person, based on how they were feeling that day, and also on aspects of their personality. A key part of our research is to better understand what factors put you at risk of – or indeed of being resilient to – developing depression. With an eye to developing better treatments in the future, we wanted to assess the impact of the more malleable aspects of our personality. We drew from the psychological concept of self-determination theory
, which argues that we all have three innate needs: those being (i) competence, to feel like you have a degree of mastery over various skills; (ii) relatedness, a sense of being a part of something greater; and (iii) autonomy, the sense that you are a causal agent in your own life, acting in alignment with your true beliefs.
According to this theory, if over time all of these needs are met, we develop an “autonomy orientation”, and are self-motivated, with an authentic drive behind our actions that comes from within. If autonomy is thwarted, a “control orientation” emerges, which means we take our cues from the outside, e.g. deadlines, contingent self-esteem, and what others think about us. Finally if all threeneeds are thwarted, we adopt an “impersonal orientation”, meaning that sense of why we do anything becomes vague, and we defer to “fate” or other more passive concepts. Our participants completed a questionnaire that allowed us to estimate the degree to which they express these three orientations.
What we found was indeed interesting: overall, when people were anticipating being able to make their own decision, we found enhanced activation in a part of the brain called the ventral striatum, which is crucial for value appreciation and motivation known from extensive earlier literature. However, this enhancement dropped away in those experiencing subclinical symptoms of depression – the more severe their symptoms, the smaller the “neural appreciation” for their personal choice. Whether that is a cause or consequence of feeling depressed is of course a point for debate.
In the same part of the brain, we also found that people who scored highly for the impersonal orientation, with the associated vagueness of motivation, showed a particular appreciation for rewards that were effectively gifted to them by the computer, as opposed to personally earned by their own decisions.
Finally, we found that those with the autonomy orientation (intrinsically self-motivated) showed enhanced responses to personal choice in a part of the brain called the right inferior frontal gyrus, whereas people with the impersonal orientation showed the opposite response. Inferior frontal gyrus is important because is crucial for goal-directed action, for regulating our emotional responses, and changing how we feel about situations through therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy.
The autonomy and impersonal orientations are interesting because there is evidence that they
are modifiable. Being given the opportunity to feel competent and for that to feel acknowledged; to be meaningfully connected to those around us; and to have that sense that we have some real control over our lives, all vary according to the kind of (modifiable) educational and workplace environments we find ourselves in. Our research suggests that the such environments have neurobiological consequences on how we appreciate our opportunities to act.