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People who shop like crazy may indeed be slightly mad. A new scientific study from the United States indicates that compulsive shoppers may have a dysfunction in a crucial decision-making area of their brain.
The study, published in Nature, shows that decisions about what to buy and what not are made by a few neurons located in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), an area of the brain just behind the eyes.
"We have long known that different neurons in various parts of the brain respond to separate attributes, such as quantity, colour and taste," said Camillo Padoa-Schioppa, the neurobiologist who led the study. But quite how those different attributes are reconciled has been a mystery until now.
You might, for example, like one shirt because it is blue, but another because of its texture and another for its size. How do you choose between them or to buy any of them at all?
To find out, Padoa-Schioppa and his colleagues studied the brain activity of macaque monkeys who were offered the choice between grapefruit juice and orange juice in differing quantities. The monkeys generally preferred grapefruit juice, but opted for orange juice under certain circumstances if, for example, a sufficiently greater quantity was available.
When three times more orange than grapefruit juice was offered, the monkeys switched their choice.
What Padoa-Schioppa found was that while different areas of the brain are involved in taste, the decision to change the choice was made by a few neurons in the OFC. Any small lesions or damage to that area could cause shoppers to behave irrationally, he said. "When you go to compulsive shopping, I think it is safe to assume that there is a dysfunction in the OFC which is leading to it."
Such dysfunctions may be involved in other addictions as well. "In various brain scans, when people gamble, we see the OFC light up. Similarly, drug addiction is a type of impulsive behaviour."
One woman who has experienced the compulsion to shop non-stop is Juliana De Angelis, a sales rep from west London. "I used to be buying something nearly every day," said De Angelis, who in the past bought items of clothing or jewellery every other day. "It's just this thing where I have to buy something. It's a force stronger than me. I can't control it."