Our Science

The Oh sh** circuit

A famous case, that of Phineas Gage back in the 19th century led scientists to think that certain parts of the brain were associated with particular activities such as speech, sight emotions etc...


It led to the dead end of Phrenology which involved looking for insights on the patients psyche by reading the bumps on the head but also supported the work of Scottish neurologist David Ferrier in 1870s who had identified some of the brain areas involved in behaviour.

Our ability to identify the relevant areas and how they are used has accelerated rapidly in the past few decades due to the introduction of new technologies such as fMRI.

Of particular interest to us was research into how people take decisions, especially risky ones such as deciding whether or not to steal something.

We all come with a pre-fitted early warning device in the brain. It is part of the oldest part of the brain and we are not conscious of it's working.

It's called the anterior cingulate cortex, sometimes referred to by neuroscientists as the 'Oh sh** circuit' or, more politely as the ACC.

It makes up part of the oldest part of the brain and is associated with error detection and emotional responses.

Daniel Kahneman in his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", describes how we have two thinking systems, system one and system two. This was explained by Nobel prize winner Kahneman and Tversky in their 1979 paper Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk.

It says basically that people make decisions based on the potential value of loss or gains and that the assessment of risk is not simply based on the certainty of punishment.

Instead it involves an emotional reaction triggered by experience and expectations. System One occupies the largest and oldest part of the brain and is fast, intuitive and heuristic.

It's the system that keeps us breathing, able to recognise things like faces in an instant.