​Rewards, Emotions, and Decisions

The Stauffer Lab is interested in how the brain gives rise to the mind. Specifically, we study neural circuits that respond to and generate aspects of our subjective mental narrative including values, emotions, and decisions. We are interested in the relationship between these mental aspects, consciousness, and ideas about free will.

Consider the problem of value. An ice cream cone and the paper bills we call money have very little in common. They are not made of the same physical stuff. There is no ruler that can effectively compare them. Even biologically, they enter our consciousness via distinct pathways that have no common receptors. And yet, we effortlessly recognize each one as a valuable reward and commonly exchange one for another. How does the brain manage this poly-sensory, high-dimensional problem? What role does conscious awareness have in managing it?

Go deep, or go home…

The questions that we ask:

How does awareness influence motivational state and value coding?

What is the informational content of our predictions and expectations?

How do we deliberate when presented with complex incentive structures?

What neural mechanisms facilitate the integration of emotional, informational, and motoric aspects of decision making?

What genetic strategies can be used to record from Rhesus macaque brain circuits?

To answer these questions:

We focus our effort on careful behavioral measurements using psychophysics. We use economic theory, animal learning theory, and reinforcement learning to define behavioral variables such as awareness, value, probability, and confidence. We record affective responses to estimate emotions. We use single unit recording and optogenetic tagging to sample from and manipulate single neurons.

William Stauffer

Lab News

January 13, 2019: Kati’s abstract is accepted as a poster presentation for COSYNE 2019.

December 12, 2018: Aydin is accepted into University of Pittsburgh’s Neuroscience Master’s program.

November 19, 2018: Kati’s poster ‘Rare Rewards Enhance Dopamine Prediction Error Responses’ is awarded a top score at the University of Pittsburgh’s Brain Day.

November 12, 2018: Jackie joins the lab.

September 1, 2018: Xinpei joins the lab.

To learn more about our research, click through the website. I am dedicated to cultivating a diverse lab environment, and do not discriminate based on race or ethnicity, immigration status, sexuality or gender identity, socio-economic, or disability status. If you are interested in joining the lab, contact me directly.