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Decision Neuroscience: The Big Questions

UNDERSTANDING THE NEUROSCIENCE behind decision making requires a cross-disciplinary, “all hands on deck” approach to research. As already mentioned, our thoughts, though seemingly vaporous in form, are fueled by the actions of specific neuronal circuits in our brains. But deciphering these circuits is exceptionally challenging because of the complexities of pondering. Even when we are making the simplest decision, such as just choosing whether to go kayaking, swimming or hiking while on vacation, we have to place a value on each option, which in turn requires pulling up memories of prior experiences doing these activities, and factoring in which was more emotionally rewarding.

Neuroscientists have made great strides in deciphering how neurons in the brain code the information we experience about the world via our senses—what you saw on your last kayak trip, for example. So now these researchers can tackle the bigger puzzle of how our brain cells both emotionally and rationally weigh that information when making a choice, and what actually triggers the decision.

To do this, investigators in decision neuroscience must parse out and quantify all the different aspects of thinking that seem to happen simultaneously in order to literally make headway into understanding the physical basis for making decisions. Among the big questions they are trying to answer are:

  • How do neurons code the emotional weight of our experiences—do some neurons only become active in response to negative experiences while other neurons only fire when we experience something favorably?
  • How do neurons code the numerical value of various options—do more or different neurons fire for an option with bigger rewards than that for a lesser reward? How does the coding for rewards that you receive immediately differ from that of rewards that are delayed?
  • How do the far-flung different parts of the brain that govern decision-making coordinate their activity when making a decision?
  • What triggers a decision—is it the cumulative buildup of firing neurons that tip the balance to the final choice?
  • How do we alter our decision-making rules when we encounter new information that makes those rules obsolete?