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The evolution of sophisticated brains has freed us from the immediacy of sensation and action by giving us the capacity for flexible decision-making. The evidence we obtain through our senses (or from memory) need not precipitate an immediate, reflexive response. Instead our decisions are deliberative and provisional, contingent on other sources of information, long-term goals, and values.
Dr. Shadlen’s lab believes the principles of brain function that underlie simple forms of reasoning and decision-making are also the building blocks of human cognition. Brain circuits support integration of evidence from diverse sources (for example, different senses and memory), assign more or less weight to cues that differ in their reliability, calculate expected costs and benefits associated with anticipated outcomes, process elapsed time to meet a deadline or to assess temporal cost, and implement rules (such as deciding on what to decide upon) and policies (balancing accuracy against speed). They believe they will one day manipulate and restore these basic mechanisms to treat brain disorders affecting cognition. Thus, their research will ultimately help patients with disorders of higher cognitive functions affecting personality, ideation, volition, awareness and decision making.