By using a combination of mathematical modelling, machine learning and brain imaging technology, researchers have discovered what happens in the brain when people use mental abstractions. In essence, the brain system that normally tracks economic value becomes very active and ‘talks’ to the system that processes visual information. These value signals, much decried as the basis for marketing strategies, actually serve a crucial aspect of our intelligence. Value is used by the brain to select information and create mental abstractions. The study, published in the journal eLife, could open the way to new advances in basic research, education and rehabilitation, the treatment of psychiatric disorders, as well as for the development of novel algorithms in artificial intelligence.

The international team tested people’s ability to solve decision problems presented on a computer screen, while inside an MR scanner. When participants responded correctly, they were given a small reward. The problems could be solved according to two strategies: an inefficient one based on all the information presented on the screen, and a better one that required mental abstractions. By analysing the brain data with machine learning, the researchers found that when people used mental abstractions, this coincided with increased activity in the brain area that signals how valuable things are. In a second experiment the researchers used a novel neurofeedback technique to artificially change, directly in the brain, the value of some of the items used in the decision problems.

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