The holidays are here, which for most of us means spending time shopping in malls or online looking for gifts for loved ones (and even for ourselves!). It also means trying to keep from spending too much money.
Apparently whether we stay within our holiday shopping budget may not depend as much on willpower as it does on the circuitry of our own brains.
Brian Knutson of Standford University and colleagues mapped the brains of shoppers using a MRI. They discovered that, as people contemplated whether or not to make a purchase, one of two segments of their brains would “light up.” If the nucleus accumbens–part of the reward and pleasure center of the brain–lit up, the subject would invariably make the purchase. If the insula–the part of the brain that registers pain (such as the pain of something costing more than its perceived value)–lit up, the subject would invaribly say “Thanks, but no thanks.”
By watching which part of the brain became active, researchers could accurately predict whether or not the shopper would make the purchase.
The reason shopping feels so good may be related to the brain chemical dopamine. This “feel good” chemical is released anytime we are exposed to the exciting mix of new places, challenges, sights and sounds–all of which are plentiful at the mall.