Ethan Bromberg-Martin, PhD

We study how neurons in the brain motivate our thoughts and behavior: how we learn what things in the world are good and bad, and how we use this knowledge to gather the good things and banish the bad things! A great deal of work, including our own, has shown how neural systems motivate us to seek concrete, physical rewards that satisfy our basic needs (e.g. appetitive rewards like food and water). However, we are especially interested in more abstract forms of reward that satisfy higher-level goals, such as our desire to learn about the world around us.

As an example of our work in this vein, we have uncovered neural systems that motivate “information seeking”, a phenomenon in which animals choose to gather information that helps them predict future rewards. We found evidence that some of the same neural systems which promote actions to seek conventional appetitive rewards also promote actions to seek information about those rewards, effectively treating information as a reward in its own right.

These findings raise fundamental questions about how rewarding experiences are constructed by the brain. It may seem straightforward to imagine a ‘reward detecting neuron’ for physical substances like food and water, but how the brain generates more abstract rewarding experiences is largely unknown. In our lab we address this and other questions using a combination of methods, including experiments to record and manipulate neuronal activity, psychophysics experiments in humans and animals, and computational modeling to advance new theories of learning and motivation.

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