Laboratory of
Research Interests

Our laboratory is interested in understanding how the brain makes decisions. We understand a great deal about how the brain uses sensory instructions to guide actions similar to that used to navigate a traffic light; green means go, red means stop. However, for many decisions, such as choosing what bet to place in a game of poker, there are few sensory instructions indicating the correct choice. Under these conditions, the brain must weigh factors such as the statistical strength of ones hand, the size of the bets, and the opponents history of bluffing.

To study these issues in the laboratory, we measure the most common overt decision C a decision that you make roughly 3 times every second and thousands of times every day C choosing where to look. Saccades are rapid eye movements that redirect the high acuity foveae to targets of interest such as when reading this text. We are interested in how neural activity in regions of the frontal cortex and midbrain involved in saccade generation are influenced by factors such as the probability of reward, the magnitude of reward, subjective valuation, timing of actions, and interactions with a strategic opponent.

We accomplish this with a 3 pronged approach. First, both human and nonhuman primate subjects perform behavioural tasks rooted in different branches of the decision sciences including economics, psychology, and behavioural ecology. For example, subjects may compete in a game of rock-paper-scissors, engage in gambling, or forage for rewards in a virtual environment. Second, while subjects are engaged in decision-making, we either measure brain activity, with single neuron recordings and functional magnetic resonance imaging, or manipulate brain activity, with electrical stimulation and cooling techniques. Third, we develop computational models that relate how brain activity in decision circuits underlies behavioural choice.

Our various lines of research promise to provide a greater understanding of the neural basis of human decision-making. Such understanding promises to shed light on well characterized biases and heuristics associated with everyday decision-making. Moreover, this foundation is critical for the development of therapeutic interventions in patient populations who make seemingly irrational decisions such as pathological gamblers and those with substance abuse problems.


Dorris, Michael, Ph.D.

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