Slip inside the eye of your mind
Don't you know you might find
A better place to play
-Oasis "Don't look back in anger"
I'm a pretty competitive person. When I run a race (and I run a lot of races), I really do try my hardest, even though I often risk injury. I'll get to the race determined to do better. I'll work my hardest. But often, race conditions (especially crowding or lack of water), the race course, or my own lack of training will get in the way. And I'll come in 30 seconds, or even less, later than I wanted to. So close, but yet so far.
Near misses like these really bother me. I grump around for days. I start training again far sooner than I should, because I need to do better next time. I'm determined not to humiliate myself again. It's silly, the only person I'm really racing is me, but I want that "win" very badly all the same. And often, I really do wish I could just let it go, just run for the love of running.
So it always astonishes me when I talk to some older runners. Many people keep running now just fine, well into their 70s, and some of them even still race. But they do it so...casually. They don't train with that hard-eyed intensity anymore. They don't seem to mind if the race goes a little badly. They run a race, it feels pretty good to run, and they shrug it off. They certainly don't grouse the way I, and other runners my age, often do after races.
Why do the races not bother them anymore? I thought maybe it was just long time exposure to racing and running. After all, if you're still running after 5 decades or more, you really do love to run. But if you keep the love of running, why does the disappointment at your performance fade? Why do they seem to regret the "losses" less? Some of them have told me that I won't mind it either, when I'm older. But right now, it's hard to feel like I'll ever be able to shrug it off. Could I really end up with fewer running regrets?
Well, this paper says that some people may indeed have fewer regrets as they age than others. What does it mean to have fewer regrets? And what does it mean for aging?
Brassen et al. "Don’t Look Back in Anger! Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Nonsuccessful Aging" Science, 2012.
People in general tend to become more positive as they age. The exception to this is, of course, depression that occurs relatively often in the elderly. Depression will often mean a lot of regrets. But why do some people become depressed as they age, and others do not? The authors of this paper hypothesize that happier older people might be able to "let go" of regrets easier, to actually feel less regret. This decreased sense of responsibility and regret might be able to help them live happier lives as they age.
In order to test this idea, they authors had to come up with the a good simulation for "regret". They ended up with a system of 8 boxes. 7 of the boxes contained 'gold' (money you could collect), and 1 box contained a devil, randomly placed in the line. The boxes had to be opened one at a time from left to right. At any point, you can stop opening boxes, and walk away with your cash. But if you hit a devil, you lose all the cash and start the game again. If you DO decide to walk away with the money, the other boxes open, revealing how much more money you COULD have gotten if you had kept going, a pretty good instigator for regret.
They gave the game to younger people (avg age 25), older people who were not depressed, and older people who were depressed (avg age for both of these groups 65) while they were in an fMRI. As they played it, the authors looked at risk taking behavior. If you cash out, and the devil was super close (say, the next box over), how risky will you be the next time, as opposed to if the devil were over three boxes away? This risk taking behavior can tell yo how much the participants are responding to regret, the regret that they didn't keep going the last time (if the devil was far away).
What they found was that young people, and older people with depression, showed more risk taking behavior after knowing they missed a lot of money (when the devil was far away). They had a higher response to seeing missed chances for more money. Older people without depression, on the other hand, showed almost no risk taking behavior. They didn't regret their choice to stop and take the money, regardless of how much more they could have had.
The authors then looked at the risk taking responses and correlated them with fMRI activity in the ventral striatum. fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) looks at the levels of oxygenated blood going to different brain areas during a task, and usually presumes that more oxygenated blood in that area is a sign of more activity. In this case, they were interested in the ventral striatum. Activity in this area is usually associated with things like reward, but it also reacts strongly to things like a "near miss" in a gambling task. So it's very reasonable to hypothesize that changes in activity here might be related to wins and losses in the regret game.
And in young people and older people with depression, that is what they found. The missed chances (where they could have gotten lots of money if they'd kept playing instead of walking away with the cash) correlated with decreases in activity in the ventral striatum. They also saw decreases when the younger participants and the older participants with depression lost the game (when they did hit a devil and lose all their money). But in the older patients without depression, they saw only one of those decreases. The older patients without depression had decreases in ventral striatal activity ONLY when they actively hit a devil and lost a trial. They did not have decreases when they missed a chance to get more money, even if it was a lot more money they were missing.
How was this effect happening? The authors looked at an area called the anterior cingulate, which plays a role in decision making. They found increased activity in this area in olderr people without depression during their missed chances, and hypothesize that this increased activity is allowing the older people without depression to regulate their responses to missing out, so it doesn't bother them, or goad them into taking as many risks.
The older people without depression DO regret the missed money, of course. They do get angry at the loss. But it doesn't seem to regulate their behavior the next time. While younger people and older people with depression tend to take more risks the next time around, older people without depression are disappointed by the loss, but it doesn't change how they react in the next trial.
And when asked about their life regrets, older people without depression DID have regrets, just as many as those with depression. But they felt those regrets with less emotional intensity, and they didn't intrude upon their thoughts as much. They appear to feel the regret less.
So it looks like healthy aging is actually associated with reduced regret, an increased ability to let the disappointing experiences go. The authors hypothesize that when you are younger, you need to feel those regrets acutely, in order to change your future behavior to ensure a more positive outcome. But as you grow older, and your possibilities for future behaviors decrease, it may be beneficial for the brain to change, for you to feel the regret less and not try to change behaviors. Of course, is this beneficial? Is it the "better" way to age?
We should remember, also, that the usual caveats apply with any fMRI study. What you're seeing here is an isolation of one area of the brain, with subtractions from a control area (usually the cerebellum) for baseline activity, and then a comparison to the control group (along with a lot of other data smoothing). This is NOT the only region of the brain showing "activation", there was probably a lot of other stuff going on with motor activity, visual activity, decision making, etc. The results from this paper look only at the regions they wanted to see difference in. This is something that happens in any field, looking where you hypothesize to find differences, but it's definitely good to keep in mind the vast number of other things going on here that don't get shown.
And there are some things this paper doesn't address, that it probably could have in the study. Yes, the happier elderly responded with less risk taking and less "disappointment" to problem trials, but how do they compare on success responses? Does this "lack of regret" also affect positive outcomes? Do they still feel AS positive? They probably had this data in terms of risk taking and ventral striatal responses and I would have liked to see it. They did look at the positive "gain" response, but I don't think they compared it between groups. But perhaps they are saving it for another paper.
But maybe the authors are right. Maybe we do have fewer regrets as the result of healthy aging. It would be very interesting to find out if this really is the case, and what it means for both healthy aging, and those who suffer from late onset depression. While a competitive edge and big regrets might be good early in life, later in life it might not help so much. And as you get older, it might be better, or at least, more peaceful, to learn, shrug it off, and keep on going.
Brassen, S., Gamer, M., Peters, J., Gluth, S., & Buchel, C. (2012). Don't Look Back in Anger! Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Nonsuccessful Aging Science, 336 (6081), 612-614 DOI: 10.1126/science.1217516
EDIT: In twitter conversations with @TofuforBrains, she raised some interesting concerns that I didn't really make clear in the post, the biggest one I think being this: did the authors really get at REGRET? It's a tough question to answer. What is regret and how does it compare to anger or disappointment? Does a reaction to disappointment differ from a reaction to regret, or are these two terms really just describing the same thing? It's a question worth thinking about.