SNF Brain Insight Lecture on How Our Brains Decide, Create and Innovate

NEW YORK – The first Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Brain Insight Lecture of the fall semester, hosted by Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, was held virtually on September 28 on How Our Brains Decide, Create and Innovate. Decision-making is one of the most complex processes that occurs in our brains, but it relies on the same processes as other forms of cognitive function. In this pair of talks by two experts in related, but different fields, discussed how our brains make decisions and how to harness that understanding to generate our best ideas.

Dr. Michael Shadlen opened the event by describing how our brains use information from our senses or memory to make decisions, a process that is deliberate and intentional, although not always rational. He described how decisions incorporate the main ingredients of cognitive function, and how understanding them can help us understand ourselves. Dr. Sheena Iyengar then discussed how we can use our understanding of cognitive processes to harness our power for decision making and complex thought. She spoke about what it means to "think outside the box," using her new innovation method, Think Bigger, which draws upon neuro and cognitive science to show us how to get our best ideas.

Following the two talks, Anne Loffler, PhD, postdoctoral researcher in the Sensorimotor Learning Group at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute, then moderated a discussion with the speakers. Audience questions were welcomed, either submitted during registration or live during the event.

Decision Making as a Model of Thought – Dr. Michael N. Shadlen

Our brains make decisions by taking in evidence from the environment via our senses or memory and committing to a plan or proposition. This process harnesses the same building blocks that make up cognitive function, but rather than happening quickly or reflexively, they take time and intention, and do not need to lead to immediate action. Dr. Shadlen discussed how we can understand decisions as models of thought, and how our brains use decisions to make sense of a complex world.

How to Think Bigger – Dr. Sheena S. Iyengar

When coming up with creative ideas, we are always told to "think outside the box." But what does it actually mean to "think outside the box?" In this 15-minute talk, Professor Iyengar discussed her new innovation method, Think Bigger, which draws upon neuro and cognitive science to show us how to get our best ideas. We often believe the best ideas come in those magical, “aha” moments – when the apple fell on Newton's head or when Steve Jobs realized personal computing was the future. Professor Iyengar challenges this narrative and presents us with a structured approach to understanding, practicing, and solving the most complex problems we face. Rather than leaving behind our creative ideas in a single spark that burns out, she explained how the Think Bigger Innovation Method enables innovation that burns bright.

This talk was part of the SNF Brain Insight Lecture series, offered free to the public to enhance understanding of the biology of the mind and the complexity of human behavior. The lectures are hosted by Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Video of the event is available on YouTube:


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