fMRI reveals brain’s seat of confidence when decision-making

Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London (UCL) have leveraged functional MRI (fMRI) to pinpoint the specific areas of the brain that interact to compute the value of choices people are confronted with, as well as their confidence in those choices.

It has been shown that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is important for working out the value of decision options, but the new work, led by Raymond J. Dolan, MD, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, found that the level of activity in the vmPFC is linked to the level of confidence people placed on choosing the best option. The study also showed that participants’ ability to report their level of confidence was linked to the interaction between the vmPFC and an adjacent area in the brain.

“Crucially, individuals varied in how they related confidence to accuracy, allowing us to show that this introspective ability is predicted by a measure of functional connectivity between vmPFC and rostrolateral prefrontal cortex,” wrote the authors in the study abstract.

Dolan and colleagues used fMRI to measure brain activity in 20 volunteers while they made choices about food items they would later eat. Participants were asked to indicate how much they would be willing to pay for the different snack options to determine the subjective value of each, and then they were asked to report how confident they were they had made the right decisions.

In addition to showing where in the brain decision-making activity was taking place, the researchers also found that participants’ confidence varied from decision to decision.

"Overall, we think our results provide an initial account both of how people make choices, and also their insight into the decision process,” Benedetto De Martino, PhD, a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at UCL, said in a release.