Risk: The Neural Basis of Decision Making

“Lecture presented by Professor John O’Doherty for the Darwin College Lecture Series 2010.

A deeper understanding of how the brain makes decisions will not only inspire new theories of decision making, it will also contribute to the development of genuine artificial intelligence, and it will enable us to understand why some humans are better than others at making decisions, why humans with certain psychiatric and neurological disorders are less capable of doing so, and why under some circumstances humans systematically fail to make rational decisions. Most decisions made in everyday life are taken for the purposes of increasing our well-being, whether it is deciding what item to choose off a restaurant menu, or deliberating over what career path to follow. Prominent amongst these is the value or utility of each decision option, which indicates how advantageous a particular option is likely to be for our future well-being. Another relevant signal present in the brain is the riskiness attached to a particular decision option, which can influence the decision making mechanism according to ones own individual preferences (whether one is risk-seeking or risk-averse).”

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2 thoughts on “Risk: The Neural Basis of Decision Making

  1. thinks says:

    One of the interesting things about rational decisions is that almost without exception they are based in evaluation of relational data, understood via subjective criteria. Another interesting thing is that the validity of a decision is not based upon the speed by which one arrives at it, because sometimes the best decision is to wait until more data is in.

    Before the quality of life approach comes the approach of survival, in any decision-making process. When faced with an axe murder standing before us, we may decide to use any weapons at our disposal to fight for our life, or to run for high ground. Either decision may or may not work in our favor and there is no telling which was the most prudent one, all things being equal -except if we are in a wheelchair and decide to run. The validation of that decision would be easy enough.

    But is it possible that any analysis and understanding of the brain, at our level of evolution of science, may pave the way for true Artificial Intelligence? Even if we assign relational data analysis status to our instincts and subjectivity, it will be a neat feat to translate that so that A.I., may simulate it. In the end, A.I. is by definition a simulation, not a true event.

    • epanechnikov says:

      I agree with the point you make here thinks. In most of our rational decisions we utilize and evaluate data (however a part of our rational decisions can be made by utilizing what Kant calls “a priori synthetic knowledge”). We do this by assessing the data either consciously or unconsciously. And while it is often rational to collect as much information as possible prior to embarking on a course of action it is sometimes not. We often win without even thinking. See for example the following excerpt from the book “Gut Feelings” of Gerd Gigerenzer (on how a player catches a fly-ball on baseball):

      ” Computing the trajectory of a ball is not a simple feat. Theoretically, balls have parabolic trajectories. In order to select the right parabola, the player’s brains would have to estimate the ball’s initial distance, initial velocity and projection angle. Yet in the real world, balls, affected by air resistance, wind and spin, do not fly in parabolas. Thus, the brain would further need to estimate, among other things, the speed and direction of the wind at each point of the ball’s flight in order to compute the resulting path and the point where the ball will land. All this would have to be completed within a few seconds- the time a ball is in the air….. Clearly, this is too complex a process and something else is at work.

      Is there a simple rule of thumb to catch a ball? Studies have shown that experienced players use what is called the ‘gaze heuristic’ which works in situations where the ball is already high up in the air. “Fix your gaze on the ball, start running and adjust your running speed so that the angle of gaze remains constant.” The angle of gaze is the angle between the eye and the ball, relative to the ground.

      Thus, good fielders, unconsciously rely on a simple rule of thumb that dictates the speed at which a player runs. Note that the player using this heuristic is not able to compute the point at which the ball will land. Yet the heuristic leads the player to the landing point.”

      The fact the we unconsciously employ powerful short-cuts/heuristics makes the investigation of how our brain works more exciting…

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