Turn left or right? Choose blue or red? Pay the bill or take your chances? Speak out, bite your tongue or quietly infiltrate?
Decisions, decisions, decisions. We make them all day long. But how
do we do it? How do we sort through multiple possibilities and land on
Many things go into the mix, scientists say – logical reasoning,
bias, trial-and-error and irrelevant information all can affect our
choices when we are weighing the value of one thing over another. We
often learn by reinforcement and rewards, but how does that work?
Can we look at the process within our brains to get a better grasp of how people learn and make choices?
The National Science Foundation has
awarded University of Delaware neuroscientist Timothy Vickery a
$449,999, three-year grant to support such a study. Vickery and his lab
will have a close look at neural signals and what they tell us about the
The work will shed light on the learning process, strengthen
predictive models, and give insight into how mental disorders might
affect the decision-making process.
"We already know the difference in brain activity for some disorders," Vickery said, "but we don't know how the system works."
It is a complex system where many overlapping elements intersect.
If a diner has a wonderful dinner of salmon, what was it that made
the meal so great? If they think about that, they might find reliable
ways to repeat the experience.
"Is it the color or the texture, where it's from, the way it's
cooked, the restaurant, the phase of the moon?" Vickery said. "People
are tracking lots of things. We want to look at which features of the
environment they are responding to. Most times they are using relevant
features, but sometimes they track irrelevant features."
Some disorders involve an inability to focus on the most relevant
things and/or difficulty screening out irrelevant features. Modeling and
observing brain function during such deliberations may shed light on
where the process hits a snag.
Vickery and his students will continue their use of functional MRI
equipment in this study – magnetic resonance imaging that shows which
parts of the brain are most active during given tasks. And now they can
do so in the University's newly opened Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging
instead of driving more than an hour to College Park, Maryland, to use
the University of Maryland's facility. UD's fMRI capacity now is state
of the art.
There is much to be learned about human decision-making, Vickery
said, and the use of imaging in that study has only been done for about
"Small labs can still make big discoveries," he said, "as opposed to
physics, where you might be one of 1,000 working on a collider."
Vickery's research first focused on vision, then turned toward how visual learning affects decision-making.
He earned his undergraduate degree in computer science and psychology
at Vanderbilt University, his doctorate at Harvard University and spent
four years as a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University.
He joined the UD faculty in 2012 and is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.