By Damaris Critchlow, Frontiers Science writer
Using human neuro-imaging techniques to observe the brain when making decisions, Hauke Heekeren’s research is concerned with perceptual decision making, the roles of motivation and affect in decision making, as well as cognitive and affective components in normal and disturbed social cognition.
“When I was in med school in Munich in about 1994, I learned of a psychiatrist, Christoph Hoch and a neurologist, Arno Villringer who were using new methods to look at the intact human brain while it was at work. I was fascinated because these technologies actually allowed us to observe the human brain in action while people were speaking or perceiving things or thinking,” Professor Heekeren explains. “I saw all the wonderful techniques that were just about to be developed and that got me into it. I was hooked basically from that time on.”
Heekeren is Professor of Biological Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at Freie Universität Berlin and the Field Chief Editor of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. From those decisions taken in everyday social situations, to economic situations and those taken when we are stressed, Professor Heekeren’s research watches the brain in action.
“My lab mainly investigates the neuroscience of decision making these days, so we are using new techniques to observe the brain in action while people make decisions. We use different techniques to do that and also investigate different kinds of decisions,” he says.
The types of decisions Heekeren investigates vary. “It could be simple things like what do you perceive; if you look at a picture what are the mechanisms behind that. We also look at decisions that are based on values, like economic choices.” He also is researching social decision making. He wants to understand what the mechanisms are when you make decisions that affect other people, or how the information other people have affects your own decisions.
The onslaught of data brought about by progressive technologies means new, big challenges for the future of the field, along with the potential for greater insights into the workings of the brain. “When new brain imaging methods are developed, we get finer and finer resolution both in time and in space. When we started out, we were happy to be able to look at a chunk of cortex, and we’re getting more and more microscopic,” he said.
Data gathered from each participant has to be pieced together and varies in method. “We have methods that have a great spatial resolution and can reveal microstructural features and at the same time with a high temporal resolution, so we can look at changes in brain activity within seconds or milliseconds,” he said.
Heekeren says that now one of his long-term goals is to turn all of the fantastic things learned through research into results for the general public.
“We have promised all along that this kind of basic research is going to lead to applications and a deeper understanding of diseases. Part of the motivation is to create new knowledge that in the end also helps patients. That’s a promise that we as a field still have to fulfill,” he said.