With nearly 100 pairs of sneakers staring me in the face every morning, I have a pretty difficult time choosing the ideal centerpiece for the day’s trappings. Guys with more conservative wardrobes (think Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg) have said they wear the same or very similar outfits every single day to preserve their cognitive effort for more important decisions than what to wear to work. In essence, it’s much easier to select an outfit when you have fewer options to consider. And honestly, those guys just may have been on to something.
For those of us who don’t run countries or Fortune 500 companies, consider the more common dilemma of picking one restaurant to eat at from dozens of appetizing choices. Then, think of how mentally exhausting it is to select a meal when you’re handed a menu as thick as a phone book—if you dinosaurs remember those things. At the end of the day, we usually have to put on clothes and eat, so it makes sense that we can learn to effectively and efficiently make decisions that require us to focus our attention on the aspects of decisions that we value more in spite of distractions that we value less.
What these examples also suggest is that we can dynamically combine various pieces of information, including details about our available options and the different value that each option has. When more options are brought to our attention, the consequences of our decisions can become increasingly uncertain. However, choices with more rewarding outcomes direct our attention to features of those choices that will increase the likelihood of successful decisions in the future–like the place in my closet where I put my favorite shoes, or the section of a menu where you picked an entree you loved the last time you visited a restaurant. So, whether we are constructing the consummate ensemble of clothing or cuisine, we learn how to refine our decisions by incorporating information about more rewarding choices amid distracting options with less desirable results.
Ultimately, the ability to assimilate different types of attentional and reward information can partly influence the choices that we learn to make. This leads to one of many questions that interests us in theCognitive Axon (CoAx) Lab: when we learn to make choices, how do the structural connections in our brain support the integration of many kinds of information that are processed in different regions?
Previous research looking at nonhuman primate (e.g., monkey) neuroanatomy, which is quite similar to humans, has shown that connections from different areas at the cortical surface of the brain do overlap and interdigitate in the same areas within the striatum. These deep forebrain regions serve as the primary inputs to the basal ganglia. The striatal nuclei sit near the center of the brain, but towards the front, and are linked to many cognitive functions including reward, decision making, motor control, and language, to name a few.