Neural Mechanisms of Updating under Reducible and Irreducible Uncertainty

J Neurosci. 2017 Jul 19;37(29):6972-6982. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0535-17.2017. Epub 2017 Jun 16.


Adaptive decision making depends on an agent's ability to use environmental signals to reduce uncertainty. However, because of multiple types of uncertainty, agents must take into account not only the extent to which signals violate prior expectations but also whether uncertainty can be reduced in the first place. Here we studied how human brains of both sexes respond to signals under conditions of reducible and irreducible uncertainty. We show behaviorally that subjects' value updating was sensitive to the reducibility of uncertainty, and could be quantitatively characterized by a Bayesian model where agents ignore expectancy violations that do not update beliefs or values. Using fMRI, we found that neural processes underlying belief and value updating were separable from responses to expectancy violation, and that reducibility of uncertainty in value modulated connections from belief-updating regions to value-updating regions. Together, these results provide insights into how agents use knowledge about uncertainty to make better decisions while ignoring mere expectancy violation.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT To make good decisions, a person must observe the environment carefully, and use these observations to reduce uncertainty about consequences of actions. Importantly, uncertainty should not be reduced purely based on how surprising the observations are, particularly because in some cases uncertainty is not reducible. Here we show that the human brain indeed reduces uncertainty adaptively by taking into account the nature of uncertainty and ignoring mere surprise. Behaviorally, we show that human subjects reduce uncertainty in a quasioptimal Bayesian manner. Using fMRI, we characterize brain regions that may be involved in uncertainty reduction, as well as the network they constitute, and dissociate them from brain regions that respond to mere surprise.

Keywords: ambiguity; decision making; fMRI; risk; updating; valuation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Uncertainty*
  • Young Adult