Neural Circuits at the Intersection of Feeling and Deciding

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Neural Circuits at the Intersection of Feeling and Deciding

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Title: Neural Circuits at the Intersection of Feeling and Deciding
Author: Shenhav, Amitai
Citation: Shenhav, Amitai. 2012. Neural Circuits at the Intersection of Feeling and Deciding. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: Affect plays a central role in perception and action. We register how good or bad we feel about objects in our environment at the moment of perception. These associations can guide decisions between different courses of action. And how we feel about those decisions influences subsequent affective states, and therefore subsequent decisions. A consistent set of brain regions has been implicated in affect and decision-making – including regions of medial prefrontal cortex, striatum, and insula – but their respective roles in interfacing between affect, valuation and choice are debated. One region in particular, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex/medial orbitofrontal cortex (vmPFC/mOFC), finds itself at the center of both affective and seemingly non-affective phenomena, in ways that can be either central or peripheral to the decision at hand. The current studies use functional MRI to explore the role of these different circuits during the process of generating automatic affective associations (Parts 1 and 3), integrating those affective associations into value-based decisions (Parts 2 and 3), and then integrating the experience of choosing into its own affective association (Part 3). Part 1 shows that the same region of vmPFC/mOFC automatically tracks the associations an object has with an affective valence (i.e., how unpleasant/pleasant it is) as well as with other objects in memory. Part 2 shows that affective associations for abstract but morally salient outcomes (hypothetical lives saved vs. sacrificed) can be integrated into a common value to guide moral judgments. The neural circuits involved in this process were consistent with those that have played similar roles when decisions were instead between food or monetary rewards. Part 3 shows that decisions between multiple rewarding options (i.e., "win-win" choices) activate separate neural circuits involved in evaluating (a) expected rewards and (b) the difficulty of making a choice, with the consequence being a simultaneously (a) positive and (b) anxiety-provoking affective experience. The vmPFC/mOFC played an important role in each of the three studies, in a manner consistent with a proposed role in integrating affective experience with other representations in memory in order to inform feelings and behavior. Together, these findings help to better elucidate the roles of different neural circuits in translating affective experience into choice and choices into affective experiences.
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