Science Weekly: Dealing with Uncertainty

Credit: Edvard Munch and Roland Roberts


Photo credit: Edvard Munch and Roland Roberts

New research published in November in the journal PLOS Biology by the University College London illuminates how brain chemicals affect how we handle uncertainty.

The abstract begins:

Successful interaction with the environment requires flexible updating of our beliefs about the world. By estimating the likelihood of future events, it is possible to prepare appropriate actions in advance and execute fast, accurate motor responses.

Humans have been dealing with uncertainty daily as a part of survival for as long as our species as been around. What these researchers did was assess the roles of brain signaling chemicals noradrenaline, acetylcholine, and dopamine within the same frameworks of uncertainty.

They summarized:

We propose that noradrenaline modulates learning about the instability of the relationships that link environmental events. Acetylcholine balances the attribution of uncertainty to unexpected events occurring within an environmental context or to gross violations of our expectations following a context change. In contrast, dopamine sensitizes our actions to our beliefs about uncertainty.

Researchers hope to continue studying the associations of brain signaling chemicals in relation to uncertainty as well as learning, reward, prediction, and action. They hope to gain insight into neurological and psychiatric disorders, which are affected by the poor regulation of these chemicals.