The human brain likes to make predictions about how the world works.
Imagine, for example, that you move to a new town. At first, you don't know where to go for dinner. But after weeks of trying different restaurants, you pick a favorite, a little Thai place that makes the best green curry.
Several months later, however, you notice the curry isn't as spicy and the vegetables seem undercooked. At first you give your favorite place the benefit of the doubt. But after a few more so-so dinners, you suddenly realize that something must have changed—perhaps the owner hired a new chef—and your notion that this is the best place around is no longer valid.
So you begin searching for a new favorite restaurant.
Neuroscientists have long been interested in this adaptability, particularly in the moment when an individual discards an old belief and begins to formulate a new one.
"You go from being confident in your model of the world to being uncertain and then abandoning the model altogether," says Alla Karpova, a group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus.
She and her colleagues wondered what goes on in the brain when this happens.
In rats, they found that the rejection of an old belief correlates with abrupt changes in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in cognitive functions such as reward anticipation and decision-making.
The team's research is published in the October 5, 2012, issue of Science.
Read about the details of the study, and the fascinating implications, at the link.