• Behaviour

It’s In-decision time now

How do 86 billion brain cells organize themselves to make decisions?

Tuesday 23 February 2016

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BRAIN GAIN: Executive decision-making is high on the neuroscientists’ research agenda. Just how do those 86 billion brain cells organize themselves to make it all so seamless? And what about indecision?

Two recent reports in Scicasts ( make for an interesting comparison. Researchers at Cambridge, from the Dept. of Engineering, have come up with some useful work about decision-making.1 Computational Neuroscience for February 4th. reports a paper in a recent copy of The Journal of Neuroscience in which the authors distinguished between habit-based decisions and goal-based decisions. Habits, it is suggested, are like websites cached on a computer. They load faster the next time they are visited.

In humans habits are extremely economical of energy and leave the option open for attention to be directed elsewhere. Think of learning to drive and how much focus every action required, compared with the automatic actions barely at the threshold of consciousness twenty years of practice later. Think also of the perfunctory greeting to a spouse when returning home at the end of a hard day.  Compare that to the eagerness of greeting when first fascinated by each other.  Not all habits are good, even if economical.

Goal-based decisions involve branching options and assessments of the future – hugely more resource intensive actions.  Imagine knowing that the fate of the next major contract you might win depends on speaking fluent Mandarin when you have no knowledge of Mandarin at all. The internal options network gets dead-ended as there is nothing on which to rely on so far as speaking Mandarin is concerned; but creative options as to how to get someone alongside you, who will be your voice, will distinguish the winner from the loser. How does the brain do that?

What seems to be happening is that planning and learning create conditions in which the actual gaps between brain cells, the synapses, can adapt and re-shape circuits depending on what has or has not worked previously. It is as if the brain knows what has worked before, which of course it does, otherwise we couldn’t do this. Developing an algorithm to describe that action has produced what the authors, Dr. Johannes Friedrich (now of Columbia University) and Dr Maté Lengyel think may be the most comprehensive model of complex decision-making to date. It has got big implications for doing things differently, because under the threat of change, habits naturally seem (to the brain) the best option.

But indecision is a different matter altogether. This time it is not engineers but neuro-economists from Zurich (the elusive g(e)nomes of Zurich?) who are in hot pursuit of finding out how the brain works.

Using an electrical technique to stimulate co-ordinated brain-wave oscillations in various brain regions and in subjects who did not know their brains were being got into oscillating patterns, the researchers2 could control the intensity of information flow between the front and middle parts of the brain –fronto-parietal phase coupling, if we want to be precise.

What they observed was that when subjects were making choices based on their own preferences, then disrupting the brain wave patterns produced indecision. When the same disruption was applied to choices that required just objective data, no indecision was apparent.

So it seems that having to rely on our internal or subjective world of data upon which to make decisions is much more vulnerable to the possibilities of indecision than when we have facts. That seems like a good analogue for the senior executive’s everyday life, and may perhaps help us understand why there is so much – and so much unnecessary – data flooding the executive mindscape.  Indecision is less likely if there is data to hand.

Perhaps the next experiment might work out what happens when the data is rubbish. Or the kind of data to which numbers should never have been applied in the first place. Does that produce indecision too?  Or is it that any kind of data makes for easier brain function?


1. Friederich, J. & Lengyel, M. Goal-directed decision making with spiking neurons. The Journal of Neuroscience (2016) DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2854-15.2016.  See more at


2. Pollonia, R., Moisa, M., Opitz, A., Grueschow, M. & Ruff, C.   The precision of value-based choices depends causally on fronto-parietal phase coupling.   Nature Communications, 6, Article number 8090, 20 August 2015.

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