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An ambitious new project aims to expand the scientific understanding of human autonomy 

Humans are capable of a level of autonomy — defined as self-determined, flexible, and rational behavior — that leaves other animals (not to mention our most advanced computers) far behind. A new three-year, $10 million project led by psychologists, neuroscientists, and cognitive scientists working out of multiple labs at Princeton University will investigate questions relating to humans’ unique autonomous abilities that could have ramifications in fields ranging from computer chip design to philosophy.  Nearly $5 million of the project funding will be provided by the John Templeton Foundation, with the balance coming from Princeton and from Intel’s brain-inspired computing lab.

The project, headed by Princeton Neuroscience Institute co-director Jonathan Cohen, will focus on three core aspects of human autonomy. One set of investigations will look at how humans create mental models to take complex tasks and render them simpler and easier to solve. Another will look at how we evaluate and decide between competing goals — how we choose between faster but smaller rewards and slower but larger rewards, and how we decide which tasks to do right away and which to save for later. Finally, a cluster of investigations will look at when and how cognitive control can be “costly” — why some complex mental tasks (like facial recognition) are easy for humans, while others (like multi-digit arithmetic) require significant mental effort. Indeed, this kind of human efficiency is a common thread running through all three areas of investigation: autonomous decision-making and action require getting high levels output from finite mental and physical resources.

The project’s individual experiments will use techniques such as direct brain monitoring through fMRI and EEGs as well as behavioral measures. In addition to the usual research outputs of papers and presentations, Cohen and his colleagues will produce shareable datasets and computational models for use by other researchers.

“Our experience of autonomy gets to the heart of a number of key questions around what it means to be human, ranging from intellect, cognition, and consciousness to self-control, future-mindedness, and free will itself,” says Alexander Arnold, the John Templeton Foundation’s senior program officer for philosophy and theology. “The neuroscience labs at Princeton are probably the strongest in the country working on these kinds of issues, making this project an incredible opportunity to substantially advance our understanding of human rationality and self-determination.”


Learn more about project leader Jonathan Cohen, as well as the multiple Princeton lab leaders — Nathaniel Daw, Tom Griffiths, Yael Nav, and Kenneth Norman, and Intel senior principal engineer Ted Willke.