How Our Brain Makes Decisions

A new research group investigates the interplay between learning, memory, and decision processes

Blue or green, suit or dress, Munich or Berlin: Every day we are confronted with hundreds of decisions – some trivial, some complex. Our brain refers back to earlier experiences, and at the same time learns something new with every decision. In his new research group „NeuroCode“ at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, psychologist and neuroscientist Nicolas Schuck is examining how this works.

Nicolas Schuck’s group started its research work at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in September 2017. Dr. Schuck and his team are investigating how the human brain makes use of previous experience in order to make decisions. The group’s abbreviated name „NeuroCode“ stands for "Neural and Computational Basis of Learning, Decision Making and Memory."

Dr. Schuck completed his PhD in psychology within the International Max Planck Research School on the Life Course (LIFE) at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and continued his research at Princeton University. In his previous work, Nicolas Schuck was able to show that the interactions between processes of learning, memory, and decision making are controlled by signals of the prefrontal cortex. With his new research group he is now examining which algorithms the brain uses in order to take new decisions on the basis of previous experience. The question is: How are relevant information and previous experiences processed in the brain during decision making? For example, are single experiences recalled or just how well the selection of a certain option worked on average? „The central question is: How are experiences stored in the brain so that they can be retrieved efficiently when decisions need to be made?“, says Nicolas Schuck. „Our understanding of these processes is still in its infancy. But we hope to be able to deepen our insights into the brain’s bag of tricks by using new statistical methods.“

Nicolas Schuck applies various methods in his research. Study participants solve decision tasks while their brain activity is measured via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These data are then interpreted with analytical tools from statistics and machine learning.

„We are very pleased that Dr. Schuck has decided to locate his research group at our Institute,“ says Ulman Lindenberger, Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. „His expertise and his interest in decoding the relationship between neuronal activation patterns and the contents of thought will benefit the Institute’s research greatly.“

The Max Planck Society supports junior researchers’ careers by awarding leadership positions for Max Planck Research Groups. The Research Groups have their own budgets for personnel and equipment and make use of the respective institute’s infrastructure and administrative services. This allows them to carry out their research projects independently.

Nicolas W. Schuck
Nicolas W. Schuck completed his PhD in psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and then did his postdoc in cognitive neuroscience at Princeton Neuroscience Institute. He is continuing his research on the neuronal basis of decision making at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

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