Past experience is usually a reliable guide for making decisions but in unpredictable and challenging situations it might make more sense to take risks.
A study published in the journal Cell shows that rats abandon their normal tactic of using past experience to make decisions and instead make random choices when their competitor is hard to defeat.
This switch in strategy is controlled by a dedicated brain circuit, indicating that the brain can actively disengage from its past experiences and enter a random decision-making mode when it provides a competitive edge.
These findings may have implications for human disorders such as depression, in which even ordinary decision-making is viewed as ineffective.
“We discovered that animals can get stuck in a random mode of behaviour that in a way resembles learned helplessness, which has been linked to depression and is triggered when repeated efforts prove to be ineffective,” says Alla Karpova of the Janelia Farm Research Campus in the US.
The brain has evolved to optimise choices by using all available information acquired from past experience.
However, when animals encounter new and unpredictable situations, such as a novel environment or prey which moves erratically, it might be more beneficial to instead vary behaviour randomly.
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