Original thinking about how our brains decide
/ Published: 13 March 2017
It's Brain Awareness Week and to support its aims of increasing public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research, we’re highlighting the stellar contribution of three UK neuroscientists.
Insights into how we make decisions
We make hundreds of decisions every day, from deciding what to wear to life-changing choices. But however big or small the decision, our brain has to consider many complicated factors.
For example, when deciding what to eat as a snack do you choose a healthy option, such as fruit, or an unhealthy option, such as crisps? Multiple factors influence each decision. What are the long-term benefits? What will taste better? What will make me happier? What will make me feel more full?
The brain needs a way of integrating all these factors and deciding on a course of action.
Their interdisciplinary work has been pivotal in advancing our understanding of the brain’s reward system, identifying the:
- type of neurons (nerve cells) involved in reward
- computations the brain goes through to make choices
- brain regions involved in integrating choice.
This became known as the 'reward prediction error' and the basis for understanding how we learn.
Professor Dayan's work focuses on building mathematical and computational models of learning and how we choose appropriate actions when faced with rewards and punishments.
He proposed that dopamine neurons are computing the likelihood of actions leading to rewards, and what the likely outcomes will be based on that prediction.
Professor Dolan, a Wellcome Investigator at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, has been instrumental in furthering our understanding of how human emotion impacts on value learning and decision-making. In doing this, he identified brain circuits that are critical in integrating emotional context into choices.
How brain research advances thinking
The ongoing work of the trio demonstrates that interdisciplinary research can revolutionise our understanding of how the brain works, and how that translates into the real world.
Their research advances our thinking in a multitude of fields, from economics and social science to psychiatric disorders. Our understanding of addiction to certain drugs or gambling – and why certain people are more likely to become addicted – is in no small part thanks to the insights of Professors Schultz, Dayan and Dolan.
Images credit: Thomas Farnetti, Wellcome