To determine if there might be a difference in brain activity between someone who did something knowingly compared with doing it recklessly, the neuroscientists recruited 40 people for brain scans. The people asked to imagine themselves in the following scenario: They would have to carry a suitcase — which might or might not be filled with contraband — through a hypothetical checkpoint, according to the study.
In the experiment, the researchers varied the probability that the suitcase the participant would be given contained “valuable content.” For example, in one scenario, a participant was presented with five suitcases, only one of which contained contraband. The participant wasn’t told which suitcase contained contraband, but because he or she was aware of the risk, he or she would be acting recklessly if they took one of the suitcases through the checkpoint. In another scenario, a participant might be presented with just one suitcase, so he or she would know that it definitely contained contraband.
The researchers found that the patterns of the participants’ brain activity differed significantly, depending on whether they were acting knowingly as opposed to recklessly. For example, a part of the brain called the anterior insula was more active when the person knew for sure that he or she was carrying contraband, according to the study. This part of the brain has been implicated in other research that looked at risk and reward, the researchers wrote.