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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    How the Brain Decides

    On Monday, Mar. 12 at 4:30 PM, the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University hosted a packed 11th annual Mind/Brain Lecture. This year’s lecturer, Michael Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D. spoke about how a better understanding of the brain’s decision making abilities is paving a path for new treatments to neurological disorders that affect our cognitive abilities. The lecture titled ‘How the Brain Decides: Uncovering the Secrets of Cognition’ lasted 60 minutes for an audience consisting of a large number of both faculty members and students.

    The lecture series are organized by the Swartz Foundation, which was co-founded by Jerome Swartz of Symbol Technologies, Inc. According to Swartz, the lectures ‘explore the application of physics, mathematics, and computer engineering principles to neuroscience, as a path to better understanding the mind/brain relationship.’

    According to President Shirley Strum Kenny in a SBU press release, ‘Greater knowledge of the fundamental principles of how the brain works will create new career paths in both med tech and high tech.’

    Shadlen, who works at the University of Washington, has a research team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where he now carries a majority of his research. His lecture began with the history of code solving by the brain, which according to Shadlen, began with ‘Alan Turing during World War II, who applied [neural computations] to break the German navy’s Enigma cipher.’ Shadlen went on to explain that the field was further pioneered by Abraham Wald who developed sequential analysis.

    Shadlen first defined decision as ‘a commitment to a proposition or plan of an action or behavior.’ He then turned to a humorous note citing a current day example. The powerpoint slide showed a picture of President George W. Bush holding an 8-ball. Slides then popped up next to the picture in succession to show the kind of decision making that occurs in a contemporary setting. With wry sarcasm, Shadlen said that what aided the President’s decision was ‘strong evidence’ (biological weapons), ‘good advice’ (Donald Rumsfeld), ‘gains’ (oil) and a certain chance (8-Ball).

    The lecture then delved into more serious territory as Shadlen began to explain the protocol of his experiment and the results that it has illustrated. Shadlen’s work with Rhesus monkeys explores the pathway that leads to a decision. Utilizing several graphs and statistical data that measure the accuracy of coherence of decision making, Shadlen quantifies the monkey’s ability to correctly identify the direction of flowing dots. He makes it more complicated for them by introducing some random dots in the collection. His studies, which make both ‘psychometric’ and ‘chronometric’ conclusions, explore the brain pathway, which starts with a ‘sensory input,’ leading to a ‘decision process,’ and then a ‘motor output.’

    The lecture was simplified as it was meant for a general audience. Any use of neurological terms was predefined. Shadlen talked about the visual cortex, which he said, ‘contains a sheet of 100,000 neurons and is where evidence first arrives.’ He explained that the ‘information is coded by spikes, or action potentials. There is a Middle Temporal (MT) visual area where sensory evidence comes in and a Lateral Intra-Parietal (LIP) cortex area, which is spatially selective.’ These are the particular areas in the brain that Shadlen’s team investigates.

    According to Shadlen, ‘the LIP ‘interprets’ sensory evidence in the way a statistician might. It accumulates logarithmic probability for rationality and applied the termination rule for deliberation and commitment.’

    Shadlen ended with a summary of his work. He said that through such research ‘it is possible to study decision-making at the neuronal level and that neurons in association with the cortex combine evidence rationally, intentionally and terminally.’

    Past lectures in the Mind/Brain series have included last year’s speaker, Helen Fisher, who holds a Ph. D. from the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies. Fisher is the most referenced scholar in love research and was hired by Another notable speaker was V. S. Ramachandran from the University of California at San Diego, in 2002. He is the Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Encyclopedia of the Human Brain,’ and his work on phantom limbs has led to several documentaries on PBS and other media outlets.

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