Thursday, November 08, 2007

Decision, Decisions

A recent Science Magazine issue has a special section on the underlying processes of decision-making. Here is Peter Stern's introduction to the section:
Who hasn't agonized over a major decision in life, whether to accept a job offer, move house, or perhaps switch research fields? We are confronted with a multitude of decisions on a daily basis. Many decisions are trivial and can be dealt with in seconds. However, others may have wider ramifications and can be excruciatingly complicated. In the past few years, our understanding of the underlying processes of decision-making has progressed markedly. This neuroscience special issue highlights some of the most exciting developments in this area.

Koechlin and Hyafil review recent experimental studies that provide new insights into the function and connectivity of the anterior prefrontal cortex, which forms the apex of the executive system underlying decision-making. The authors propose an original model of the anterior prefrontal function and provide a theoretical framework for addressing major unresolved issues and guiding future research on decision-making and higher cognition.

Human beings are highly social animals. Many of our decisions make sense only within a social environment. Sanfey outlines the advantages that can be gained by combining tasks and formal mathematical models from game theory with modern neuroimaging methods to characterize the processes that underlie social decision-making. He also summarizes recent research that offers good examples of how this neuroeconomic approach has already begun to illuminate our knowledge of this process.

Sometimes things can also go wrong in this complicated and well-balanced interplay between several brain regions. Paulus proposes that decision-making in psychiatric populations cannot be viewed simply as an alteration of the preference structure or the way individuals experience the outcome of the decision. Instead, it must be understood from the homeostatic balance perspective of the individual. Increased risk-taking behavior in drug addicts, for example, although maladaptive in the generic sense, may actually be adaptive for the substance user in a complex, highly unpredictable environment while attempting to respond to internal urges and cravings.

Decision theory has boomed in the past decade. K├Ârding gives an overview of how decision theory, including normative/Bayesian approaches, can lead us to better understand the functions of the nervous system.

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