Department Newsletter | Faculty Spotlight

Robert "Bob" Wilson, Assistant Professor & Director of Neuroscience of Reinforcement Learning Lab

Originally from England, I have spent much of my life in the cold and the rain. I did my Ph.D. in Philadelphia at Penn (average winter high 40.3F) and my postdoc at Princeton (average winter high 41F). After living through the “Polar Vortex” winter of 2014, it was an easy choice to come to UA in January 2015, where the average winter high (64.5F) matches the average summer high where I was born! 
Research in my lab focuses on the neuroscience of decision making - that is, what happens in our brains when we make a choice? To this end, we use a variety of techniques, from brain imaging with fMRI and EEG to brain manipulation with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which can effectively “turn off” specific brain regions with strong magnetic fields. In addition, we use computational modeling to make sense of the complex data we acquire and to derive mathematical equations that can actually predict the choices people make. 
In one line of work, we are using all of these techniques to study how people decide between “exploring” something new (e.g. eating dinner at a new restaurant) and “exploiting” what they already know (e.g. going back to an old restaurant they know and love). Behaviorally, we have found that people can tradeoff the relative benefits of exploring and exploiting almost perfectly. Neurally, we have found that this sophisticated behavior relies on a network of brain areas at the front and in the center of the brain. Beyond the basic science, these results are helping us to shed light on how decision making changes with age and in mental disorders such as schizophrenia.