The Neuroscience of Regret

Fluttering Monarchs



We often associate regret with old age – the tragic image of an elderly person feeling regretful over opportunities forever missed. Now, groundbreaking new brain research shows how this stereotype may be true, at least for a portion of the elderly who are depressed. On the other hand, healthy aging may involve the ability to regulate regret in the brain, and move on emotionally when there is nothing more that can be done. If we can teach depressed, older people to think like their more optimistic peers, we may be able to help them let go of regret. 

How Our Brains Process Regret? 

Studies have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brain in real time while participants performed computer tasks that asked them to choose between different options for investing money. When participants were shown how they could have done better with alternative strategies (to prime regret), there was decreased activity in the ventral striatum, an area associated with processing rewards. There was also increased activity in the amygdala, part of the brain’s limbic system that generates immediate emotional response to threat. Interestingly, when the experiment was done with a computer making all the choices, these regret patterns were not found, suggesting that a sense of personal accountability is necessary for regret. 

Do Age and Depression Affect Regret? 

A new study conducted by researchers at the University Medical Center – Hamburg, in Germany provides an exciting demonstration of how healthy older people may actively disengage from regret when nothing can be done. Young people, who, presumably have more life opportunities for change and depressed elderly, who, presumably, have a deficit in emotional processing, were more regretful when confronted with missed chances for financial gain. 

There were substantial differences in brain functioning between the healthy elderly and the other groups. The young and depressed elderly showed decreased neural activity in the ventral striatum, the area associated with reward processing. The healthy elderly did not, however, show this regretful pattern when they were shown how far they could have gone; only when they actually lost all their money. Instead, when faced with their missed alternatives, healthy elderly actually showed increased neural firing in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, an area involved in emotional regulation and control. This is a new discovery, and suggests that their brains were actively working to successfully regulate the pain of regret. 

Behavioral strategies differed between the groups in a way that was consistent with the brain findings. Whereas the young and depressed elderly took more risks on subsequent rounds, the healthy elderly did not change their strategies across 80 rounds on average. When participants’ physiological functioning was assessed in another similar study using the same conditions, the healthy elderly showed less increase in blood pressure and skin conductance (a measure of sweating) than the other groups. Overall, the riskier strategy did not lead to more money, suggesting that the young and depressed elderly took on extra stress for no gain. 

Can Our Brains Actually Improve Their Emotional Processing With Age? 

An exciting implication of this study is that brain functioning does not merely deteriorate in old age, but that aging can result in better emotion-regulation and stress management. This is consistent with other research showing old people have less intense negative emotions and are happier than middle-aged people on average. 

Can Mindfulness Help? 

The researchers are now working on developing interventions to help depressed people regulate regret by showing them how much chance or outside factors played a role in their choices, versus their own actions. This should result in decreased self-blame and regret. 

Research on Mindfulness has also shown that Mindfulness-based interventions can increase activity and even change brain structure in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex and other midbrain regions involved in emotional processing and regulation. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is one of the few treatments shown to be effective at treating chronic, intractable depression. Mindfulness training emphasizing keeping one’s focus on the present moment and reducing self-judgment and reactivity may be an alternative and potentially even more effective way of helping depressed elderly let go of destructive and chronic regret. 

In summary, regret is a negative emotion that may be adaptive if it motivates action to learn from mistakes and become a smarter or better person. However, getting stuck in regret where there is nothing that can be done to change the situation can be damaging to mind and body.  For the elderly, the developmental task may be to learn to live with and accept the life they have had, focusing on the positive aspects and forgiving themselves both for mistakes made and opportunities not taken. Feeling that one has done the best one can, given the circumstances and letting go of regret can lead to self-compassion and peace.

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