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Sheri Mizumori was interviewed by the UW Daily about the study of human behavior at the intersection of many sciences

Human behavior at the intersection of many sciences

By Vidhi Singh The Daily, Feb 20

People frequently ask themselves, “Why did I do that?” Attempting to understand how we react to and interact with changing environments has resulted in years of research on human behavior.

Neurobiologists and psychologists study the biological basis of how the brain responds under certain situations. Social scientists like anthropologists explain what factors guide our behavior and engineers are taking all these studies to design tools that enforce human interaction, intelligence, and growth.

Human nature is complex, and interdisciplinary considerations may help us answer some interesting questions about how people think, remember, and behave.

“Things that are good for one's health and longevity such as finding mates, food, and children; the dopamine reward or evaluation system is important to recall that success,” Sheri Mizumori, a professor in the department of psychology who studies behavioral neuroscience, said.

Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger that relays information between neurons. It is released by the brain when we eat food, exercise, and crave sex, helping reinforce desirable behaviors by encoding values of rewards. Psychologists and neurologists have studied this through animal models that help explain how humans access their own memory to guide their actions.

“From a young age, babies learn that if an outcome is not what they want, they will change,” Mizumori said. “Much of the brain has evolved to be a predictor of outcomes.”

Memory can be thought of as a repository of past experiences that did and did not work. When we are placed in a new situation, we use strategies we learned from previous experiences to guide our actions.

“You are driving behavior based on memory and [guiding] behavior correctly the next time,” Mizumori said.

The brain uses decision circuits that integrate information about past values from memory and evaluates it against our motivational, or internal, state. Understanding how the brain can switch behaviors or learn new ones is known as flexible decision making.

Theoretical psychologists study human behavior from a philosophical and social standpoint. A commonly known study argues if nature or nurture — genetic or acquired — influences behavior.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs outlines a five-tier pyramid of deficiency and being needs. Once deficiency needs — the first tier — are met, people strive for self-fulfillment and personal growth, behaviors that encompass the fifth tier of the pyramid.

Depression is an interesting example of behavior at the intersection of social sciences and biology. Behavioral theory argues depression results from people’s interactions with the environment and psychodynamic theory states it stems from inwardly-directed anger or loss of self-esteem.

Conversely, Mizumori explained depression from a behavioral switch, or flexible decision-making standpoint.

Researchers in human centered design and engineering (HCDE) are attempting to design technologies that can support or prompt changes in people’s behaviors.

“A lot of the research projects we explore are real-world-problem driven,” Gary Hsieh, an associate professor in HCDE, said. “How do we encourage users to eat healthier or exercise more? These are health-related problems aligned to behavior-related problems.”

By studying the needs and values of certain groups, researchers like Hsieh are able to design technologies that encourage people to communicate and interact in welfare-improving ways. In a growing age of data, engineers and scientists are able to learn about people from social networks.

“Data allows us to study people in ways that we could not before,” Hsieh said. “It ties in with the types of interventions and applications that we can build.”

Human behavior presents unknown complexities that arise from cultural, social, internal, environmental, and biological factors. Being able to integrate all those is a challenge that many will be addressing for generations to follow.