Spotlight on Decision Science Fellow Dr Daniel Feuerriegel

Feuerriegel_Daniel

The Decision Science Hub and Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences are invested in providing opportunities for early career researchers to develop world leading research capabilities. Dr Daniel Feuerriegel was recently named the School’s new Decision Science Fellow in recognition of his exciting work examining perceptual decision making and how past behaviour influences future decision making strategies. We recently sat down him to learn a little bit more about his research work with the Decision Science Hub.

How did you come to focus on decision-making research? Tell us about your background.

I was originally drawn to research through my love of electronic music. I wanted to understand how the patterns and contexts developed during a musical piece can shape how we perceive a sound, or even a visual image. Consequently, I pursued a PhD in visual neuroscience in Adelaide, and investigated how our prior experiences and expectations shape how visual images are represented in the brain.

During my PhD I became fixated on how our visual system is tightly interconnected with brain networks that underlie our decisions and actions. Naturally, I set my sights on the University of Melbourne and the Decision Science Hub. In 2017 I started a postdoctoral research position in the Decision Neuroscience Laboratory, where I have been investigating how our past choices inform our decision-making strategies. This year I was awarded a Decision Science Research Fellowship, and have launched a research program combining my work on visual perception with the decision science experience gained during my time in the hub.

What is perceptual decision-making, and how does it differ from other types of decisions that people make?

Perceptual decisions are the choices we make based on the sensory signals we get from our eyes, ears and other parts of our bodies. These signals are filtered through different systems in our brain to generate representations, or ‘percepts’, of what we have seen and heard. We make a decision when we use these percepts to guide our actions.

This all sounds very abstract, but we are making thousands of perceptual decisions each day without even realising it! For example, if you see an old friend on the street, you have generated a percept (this is my friend) which prompts an action (I will say hello). These types of decisions often feel automatic, but it is very important that we can make them quickly and without errors. Although accidentally waving to a stranger on the street is embarrassing, we also rely on our perceptual decision-making abilities to safely cross the road, or judge whether someone needs medical assistance.

Other types of decision-making research focus on the values that we derive from our percepts. Research on economic decisions, for example, looks at how we assign monetary values to different choices.

A lot of your research is focused on understanding how the brain generates predictions about future events. Why is this important?

As we are constantly making perceptual decisions, we are also constantly learning about our surroundings, and making predictions about what we will see and hear in the immediate future. We are very good at picking up patterns in our environment and exploiting these to our advantage. Predictions allow us to use our prior knowledge to more quickly and effortlessly make good decisions. For example, if you learned to drive in Australia, it is much easier to anticipate what other drivers will do in Melbourne, and make rapid decisions to avoid danger, compared to when driving on the opposite side of the road in Germany. In the second situation our expectations might lead to some very dangerous driving!

Our predictions can also work against us in other ways, and bias how we perceive others. If you are feeling particularly low, you may expect that others will dislike you, and misperceive their facial expressions as hostile in line with these beliefs. By investigating the effects of our expectations on brain activity, we can better understand how our beliefs influence our decisions and subjective experience. This could lead to technological innovations that exploit our expectations to work for us, and not against us.

Our optimal brain function is dependent on so many factors. What risk factors does your research explore?

I am interested in how modifiable risk factors (e.g., diet, cardiovascular health and nutrition) affect our brain function across the lifespan. I have been fortunate to work with some fantastic medical research teams on this topic. At the moment I am involved in a large-scale project investigating the effects of nutrition on early childhood cognitive development, in collaboration with members of the Decision Science Hub and researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. We are tracking the brain development of a large cohort of infants in Bangladesh and measuring the impact of nutrition-based interventions. Conditions such as iron deficiency are widespread across the world, so we hope that our research will help develop interventions during the earliest period of life, when the brain undergoes a critical period of development.

What does receiving a Decision Science Hub Fellowship mean to you?

Receiving the Decision Science Research Fellowship has given me a critical launching pad for my research program. This fellowship has allowed me to establish my own lines of research, and focus on the questions and ideas that I'm most passionate about. Undertaking this fellowship has allowed me to combine the knowledge gained during my PhD with methods and techniques used in decision science research that I developed during my time at the University of Melbourne. It has already led to interdisciplinary collaborations with experts at home and abroad, as well as some very exciting new discoveries – watch this space!