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Risk and the Brain: The neural basis of decision making under uncertainty

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Prof. O’Doherty is currently the Thomas Mitchell Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin. His research is concerned with elucidating how the human brain is capable of making decisions under conditions of uncertainty. To achieve this he applies psychological, computational and economic theories to functional brain imaging data, as well as assessing the patterns of impairment in human patients with certain kinds of brain damage or neurological disease. Prof. O’Doherty obtained his undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Psychology at TCD (1996), and then completed a D.Phil in Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford (2001). He was a Research Fellow at the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience at University College London (2000-2004). Following that he was Assistant and then Associate Professor of Psychology at the California Institute of Technology (2004-2008).


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. In this talk I will provide an introduction to our current understanding of how the human brain is able to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. 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. I will review converging evidence from contemporary neuroscience research to support the notion that the brain encodes basic computational signals necessary for taking such decisions in a near optimal manner. 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 one’s own individual preferences (whether one is risk-seeking or risk-averse). I will show where and how such signals are encoded in the brain, review how such signals come to learned from experience, and highlight research currently underway aiming to understand how such signals are compared and integrated in order to ultimately generate choices.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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