Columbia University in the City of New York


Decision Making

During certain thought processes, such as making decisions, signals relay between different sets of neurons in the parietal cortex. (Credit: Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute)

Every action begins with the decision to act.

Understanding the origins of how the brain makes choices, from little everyday decisions to big life-changing ones, is therefore the first step to understanding our behaviors. And perhaps even to guiding behavior.

How exactly does the mental machinery inside your skull weigh different options: the coffee or the cappuccino? What causes the brain to cross the threshold from indecision to decision? How do emotions color the decisions you make? Why do people sometimes make seemingly irrational choices? And why are some choices simple — and others incredibly difficult?

To gain insight into these questions, researchers at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute look for patterns in the electrical activity of nerves cells as the brain makes up its mind. We study how the brain picks what it should pay attention to out in the world, and how it deals with uncertainty — topics of interest to economists, psychologists and anyone seeking to discover why we behave in the ways we do. Our work in this area provides a starting point for those developing treatments for addiction, anxiety disorders and other problems that affect our ability to make decisions.

Explore Decision Making

Decision Making in the News

View All News >

Videos Featuring Decision Making

How the Brain Thinks, Decides and Creates

In this lecture, Michael Shadlen, MD, PhD, discusses exciting new insights into how the brain makes decisions — from the simple to the complex — that lay the foundation for its most amazing abilities.

Learning From Experience: How Our Brains Remember the Past and Shape Our Future

Koons, Temkin and Kandel: An Artist's Creative Process in Action