Decisions, Decisions: The Israeli Neuroscientist With a Lot on His Mind

How does the decision-making process work in the brain, and do how risk-aversion choices differ when money isn’t involved?

David Bachar

Hang on a minute. Before you start reading this article, a question: What made you decide to read this one, specifically? How convinced are you that it will be more valuable for you than an article elsewhere? In the time you’re deliberating over whether or not to bog yourselves down with these nagging posers, a very large number of neurons are firing in two specific areas of your brain, with nerve cells passing along the information pertinent to these decisions to those areas of your brain.

If, right now, you laid down in an functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, these areas of your brain – the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) – would be strongly lit up. That’s where your brain function is strongest at decision-making moments.

You decided to keep reading. Was it possible to accurately predict your decision? Not quite. But decision-making science is going in that direction. Over the last decade, researchers haven’t been satisfied with logic, economic theories, game theory and raw data from behavioral psychologists, but rather have been going straight to the source – the brain.

“The subject of decision making has been researched for many years, but combining it with brain research is a relatively new thing. Currently, decision-making research is a combination of three paradigms: economics, psychology and neurological research,” explains Dr. Dino Levy, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Sagol School of Neuroscience.

“Economics provides the normative theories about how we’re all supposed to act as rational people; psychology shows us how we really act; and with neurological research, we try to understand why we act that way – the connection between the real and the ideal.”

Dr. Levy’s lab is the first of its kind to combine neuroscience with industrial research. Dr. Levy did his doctorate at the Weizmann Institute of Science, where he spent his time studying rats and patterns of addiction in the brain. He did postdoctoral work at NYU in decision making and attempts to prevent decision making through brain activity analysis.

Emotional aspect

Tel Aviv University dedicated this year’s “science day” to the subject of science and money. In his short lecture that day, Dr. Levy spoke about the idea of value – which is almost always automatically associated with money, the ideas of earnings and losses.

But during the five years he spent at NYU, Dr. Levy’s experiments also dealt with experiments concerned with food and drink. “When we talk about value, it doesn’t have to be about money. The idea is that I consider the value of every option, compare them and chose the best one,” he explains.

“The value could be monetary, or existential – like food, or feelings. Today, contrary to popular opinion, we know that the emotional aspect is an integral part of every decision, and we know that the separation into ‘emotional decisions’ and ‘rational decisions’ is no longer correct. There are many aspects to every decision – past experiences in similar situations; what I feel at the moment and how I felt in the past; what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard; whether I’m hungry or thirsty – all of these come into the general decision-making mechanism.”

Many people tend to consider themselves as being cold and rational, able to make decisions based on analyzing the current situation as opposed to whims and emotions. Behavioral psychology claims that this isn’t so – that our emotions, outside influences and many other factors are involved in decision making. Many neurological researchers are taking this a step further. “We claim that it doesn’t stem from all kinds of complex social things, or from a very complex cognitive brain, but rather that there are some basic physiological aspects of our brains that make it irrational,” says Dr. Levy.

The attempt to map out the decision-making process in our brains – let alone our ability to predict decision makings – is very ambitious, even for 21st century science.

The decision-making process involves multiple parts of the brain, but the principal activity happens in two central parts: The ventromedial prefrontal cortex – the area that drives our decision making based on past experiences or emotional triggers – as well as the striatum, which is connected to the learning process.

“This area of the brain secretes dopamine, which is very important for strengthening synoptic ties and learning based on past experience,” says Levy. “Information is passed between the striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, where the possible options are considered. Presenting their value allows for comparison between them, and eventually a decision. From here, the information is passed along to areas of the brain pertaining to motor skills and planning, in order to plan the movements that will lead to action.”

One subject that has come up in Levy’s experiments is called “risk aversion,” which characterizes our decision-making process. “Ninety percent of all people avert risks on some level or another. Most of us, in general, avert risk,” says Dr. Levy. Studies have dealt with risk aversion for years. Many studies have shown that most people prefer a lower sum of money that they will receive for sure, over double, or even triple that sum, which comes with a risk of 50 percent.

“Most studies conducted on risk aversion did so with regards to money. When I got to NYU, I asked, ‘What about things like food, for example? Let’s learn about decision making and risk aversion in relation to things that aren’t money.’ And that’s what we did there,” recalls Dr. Levy. “We learned that people are very similar in terms of their level of risk aversion, and that if people tend to avert risk with regard to money, they do as well with regard to food and water.”

One experiment conducted by Dr. Levy focused on M&M’s candies. The experiment had two parts – behavioral and neurological. Fifty participants were offered an amount of M&M’s they could receive with a 10 percent certainty, or a higher number of M&M’s, with a correspondingly higher level of risk. The same participants were subjected to a similar experiment with various amounts of water. In over 90 percent of subjects, there was an equally high level of risk aversion when it came to food and drink, as well as water.

Afterward, the participants who displayed the highest level of consistency were sent for fMRI testing, in order to see which parts of their brain were active during the decision making. “The goal was to find the areas of the brain active during decision making, not to check if they were consistent people – we know they’re not,” says Dr. Levy.

Donating less to charity

He believes the experiment showed that there are specific areas of the brain active when money is involved, and that other areas showed more dominant activity when food or water were involved – but it was apparent that all of the decisions were relegated to the same general decision-making system in the brain.

“Some psychologists won’t agree with us – they claim that the level of risk aversion is different among people for different kinds of decisions, meaning that you could be inclined toward risk when it comes to parachuting or skiing, but at the same time be conservative when it comes to investing in stocks. We think that it’s not like that, because most decisions are made by one system, working in a consistent matter,” he claims.

How do hunger and satiety affect our risk aversion?

“We’ve clearly seen that they affect it, and not just on decisions that have to do with food. When I’m hungry, my risk aversion with regard to money also changes. We see that when people are hungry, they begin to be more similar to one another – their level of risk aversion is similar in this kind of situation. When I’m satiated, I have a high aversion to risk; when I’m hungry, I’m less aversive. On the other hand, if I’m a risk-loving person, when I’m hungry I’ll tend to avert it a bit more. It strengthens my claim that one system is responsible for making decisions. There are also other studies available showing that when I’m hungry, I donate less to charity, because I feel ‘poor,’ on some level.”

Another question Dr. Levy tries to answer is whether or not our perception of information for decision making is value dependent. Initial experiments, in which participants were put in situations where they had to make decisions about money, showed that the information they received was coded differently in their brain – in coordination with the different situations the participants were presented with. “I can measure the difference in how much they value money, and see the differences in how the information is absorbed by the sight and hearing systems of participants’ brains when faced with different values,” he explains.

Experiments conducted by Dr. Levy and other researchers in the field are only one step on a challenging road toward the ability to predict decisions based on neurological activity – which exists today, but only on a very small scale.

“The ability to predict exists in a lot of things, but it’s about knowing what a person will do in two seconds – turn right or left; teach a disabled person to move his robotic limb through brain activity. We can do that already, pretty well. The challenge is to predict more complex decisions that could take place a week or more later. We’re not there, as far as I’m concerned, but some would say that we are. We’re at a level where we can predict decisions that will be made within 20 minutes or so, but not beyond that. The ‘noise’ in the system is incredible in many facets – in terms of measuring, and checking ourselves,” concludes Dr. Levy.