Anyone on a diet can attest to the apparent willpower needed to forego a pint of ice cream in the freezer and reach for a leafy green vegetable instead.
Yet, while making a “healthy choice” often feels onerous – if not downright cruel – Cendri Hutcherson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, says it may have surprisingly little to do with self-control.
Hutcherson’s research, which involves building computational models that can accurately predict both behaviour and brain activation of test subjects, shows we can dramatically improve our chances of making the “right” decision by simply changing the way we think about our options.
“Often times when we make these decisions, we subjectively feel like there’s this battle going on, with a devil on the one side and an angel on the other – and the devil feels that much more powerful,” says Hutcherson, who is also the director of the Toronto Decision Neuroscience Lab.
“But our research is saying this experience may be a bit misleading because relatively simple shifts in your attention or goals can change the underlying feeling – so now it’s harder to choose the ice cream over the broccoli.”
Hutcherson is just one of 16 U of T researchers awarded a new Canada Research Chair by the federal government this spring. Their work ranges from stopping fungal “superbugs” to developing electric vehicles and understanding the effects of war on civilians. Another 12 researchers at U of T had their chairs renewed or advanced.
The Canada Research Chairs program enables U of T to attract and retain the best and most promising researchers from around the world. In addition to conducting research that improves our depth of knowledge and quality of life, the university’s allocation of 275 Canada Research Chairs significantly enhances its capacity to train the next generation of leaders in their fields through student supervision and teaching.
“I want to congratulate all of the new and renewed Canada Research Chairs at the University of Toronto and thank the government for supporting their important work,” says Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation.
“We are grateful to the Government of Canada for its ongoing investments in the Canada Research Chairs program and for the additional funding for this program announced in Budget 2018. Such investments not only yield new knowledge, but set the stage for important innovations ranging from new cancer therapies to sustainable transportation technologies that will improve lives in Canada and around the world.”
In Hutcherson’s case, those innovations go to the very core of our being. Continuing with her example of healthy eating, she says her research shows most people are cognitively “soft-wired” to process sensations like taste faster than outcomes like health, likely for evolutionary reasons. But she says the wiring can effectively be rerouted simply by thinking about the long-term consequences of making an unhealthy choice – say, a future where you’re obese and facing heart surgery.
“This isn’t to say this is the only thing that matters, or that there aren’t cases where people say, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t eat it, but I kind of still want to,’ Hutcherson cautions. “But we’re finding these manipulations or training of attention can be surprisingly effective.”
Hutcherson says the Canada Research Chair in Decision Neuroscience will support her study into whether long-term practice or training can change how the brain assesses different options.
“Can we make it, essentially, so that [choosing] health is automatic?”
Hutcherson is applying the same neuroscience approach to understanding decisions relating to morality, altruism and social preferences. What is it that allows people to act selfishly versus generously? When and why do they take other’s perspectives into consideration? What is it that leads them to prioritize themselves over others?
That, in turn, could yield insights into some of the challenges we face in our modern, always-connected world – a place where internet giants like Facebook and Twitter have sometimes been accused of not only bringing out the worst in their users, but compromising our social and political discourse in the process.
“We live in a very interconnected society and a lot of our decisions require us to think about the effects our actions will not only have on ourselves, but also on other people,” Hutcherson says.
“My research starts from the assumption that we can’t really understand those big questions unless we understand the neural computations that are leading to those leading decisions – and the way to understand those neural computations and understand how the brain is making those decisions is essentially to build simulations.”
Ultimately, Hutcherson says she hopes the field will progress to point where computational models can offer personalized treatment for people suffering from illnesses like drug addiction, which can be caused by a litany of factors that vary from person to person.
“We might be able to develop much more personalized and more effective interventions, rather than [the current] one-size-fits-all approach,” she says.
All that said, Hutcherson cautions that “in the end, the brain is not a perfect computer – it’s noisy.” And random. In other words, thinking all the right things doesn’t guarantee you won’t occasionally scarf down a tub of mint chocolate chip or hit send on a tweet you immediately regret – though it could help lessen your chances.
“People should go easy on themselves,” Hutcherson advises.
“Making mistakes is part of being human – it’s part of the brain that we have.”