Scans Reveal How the Brain Handles Setbacks

Brain Scans
(Last Updated On: September 2, 2021)
The ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex displayed greater decreases in activity for controllable compared with uncontrollable setbacks.
The ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex displayed greater decreases in activity for controllable compared with uncontrollable setbacks.

We all face setbacks in life, but we often handle them quite differently. Some persist even in the face of huge obstacles while others give up too soon after facing difficulty.

A new study published in the September 4, 2014 issue of the journal Neuron takes a closer look at what happens in the brain when people encounter setbacks. The research reveals that when people believe they have personal control over the setbacks, a certain part of the brain becomes activated and these individuals are more likely to keep pushing forward toward their goals.

Those who feel like the situation is out of their hands, however, experience increased activity in a different part of the brain which then determines whether the person keeps trying or gives up.

Researchers utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan participants’ brains while they played a game. During the game, the volunteers would encounter something that would block their path toward achieving their goal. After each of these setbacks, the participants would have to determine whether to persist and continue on their chosen path or to give up and try a different path. The setbacks were also varied in terms of whether they seemed controllable or uncontrollable.

“We found that responses in the ventral striatum—a region previously linked to learning via trial and error—related to persisting when setbacks were viewed as controllable,”explained one of the study’s co-authors Dr. Mauricio Delgado, an associate professor at Rutgers University. “We also found that responses in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—a region previously linked with emotion regulation—related to the process of coping with negative emotions from uncontrollable setbacks in order to persist.”

So what are the implications of these findings. The authors suggest that when setbacks are viewed as controllable, people are likely to correct their mistakes and carry on. Uncontrollable setbacks, however, are likely to lead to feelings of frustration or even hopelessness which can make persistence difficult.

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The findings can also have important implications for anyone who is trying to pursue a challenging goal or life change. Students struggling with school, people trying to lose weight, and addicts fighting to give up alcohol or other substances might benefit from feedback framed in a way that emphasizes that setbacks are controllable and that persistence can pay off, the authors explain.


Bhanji, J. P., & Delgado, M. R. (2014). Perceived control influences neural responses to setbacks and promotes persistence. Neuron,

O’Leary, M. B. (2014). Brain scans show how perceived control over setbacks promotes persistence. EurekaAlerts. Retrieved from

Image Credit: Neuron, Bhanji et al.