What Is the Medial Frontal Cortex?

Jennifer Voight

The medial frontal cortex is a region in the middle to frontal lobe of the human brain that is responsible for higher functions like evaluating choices and handling errors. This portion of the brain also plays a crucial role in the cognition of social interaction. Scientists are beginning to conduct research on this previously neglected area of the brain, realizing its complexity and ability to enable humans to make split-second decisions based on available information.

The medial frontal cortex is involved in a gambler's betting decisions.
The medial frontal cortex is involved in a gambler's betting decisions.

One example of the medial frontal cortex in action is a fighter pilot's flying maneuvers. A pilot must take in a variety of physical and mental stimuli, process that stimuli within a fraction of a second, and make decisions based on the outcomes of previous decisions and degree of response conflict. All of this activity happens without conscious thought on the part of the pilot; it appears effortless or instinctual.

Medically, the medial frontal cortex is one of four parts of the frontal lobe.
Medically, the medial frontal cortex is one of four parts of the frontal lobe.

Another situation in which the medial frontal cortex plays a role is when a gambler is deciding on his next bet. An experienced gambler will evaluate odds and keep track of the outcomes of previous gambles. Sometimes the information the medial frontal cortex provides is erroneous. One study found that gamblers will wager more money after losing a bet in the belief that a string of losses increases the chances of winning in the future. In fact, previous bets have no effect on future outcomes.

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A similar effect has been found in investors. Immediately after selling a stock at a loss, frequently investors will make more impulsive decisions in future trades. The reason for this is similar to what is seen in gamblers. The medial frontal cortex evaluates incoming stimuli in such a way that it believes that losses will increase the odds of winning in the future.

This type of cognitive process is also valuable during social interactions. People must evaluate a number of factors simultaneously when engaging in social situations. A person must pay attention to body language, verbal language, and tone of voice. While she is evaluating all this, she must also hold the social context in her mind and monitor her own behavior and that of the person she is engaging with. The medial frontal cortex makes hundreds of decisions each second that feel effortless to the human but have a crucial effect on the success of the social interaction.

The relationship between the medial frontal cortex and social activity was first observed by James Harlowe in 1848. He observed a link between patients who had damage to this particular area of the brain and a difficulty forming social connections and making appropriate comments. For more than a hundred years, this region of the brain went largely unexplored. In the early 21st century, scientists from a variety of disciplines are using magnetic-resonance imaging and electroencephalogram measurements to track brain activity while subjects engage in activities that require decision-making and evaluation of errors.

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