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Neuroscience of Foraging

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Foraging, or searching for food and nutrients, is a fundamental component of the daily lives of most animals, including humans for most of our history. Foraging is a cognitively demanding activity that has shaped cognition in profound ways. Its influences likely extend to our attitudes towards risk, delay, ...

Foraging, or searching for food and nutrients, is a fundamental component of the daily lives of most animals, including humans for most of our history. Foraging is a cognitively demanding activity that has shaped cognition in profound ways. Its influences likely extend to our attitudes towards risk, delay, novelty, competition and potential predators.

Two independent streams of research have recently come together to make possible a nascent neuroscience of foraging. On one hand, foraging theory provides a well-worked out set of mathematical tools to predict optimal behavior. Over the past 40 years, animal and human psychologists have identified cognitive processes that subserve foraging decisions. On the other hand, parallel research by neuroscientists have begun to delineate the brain processes underlying both perceptual and reward-based decision-making. These discoveries can be applied directly to the study of foraging to identify the neuronal mechanisms of foraging decision-making and behavior.

There are several reasons why foraging is a valuable tool for future study:

• Foraging decisions are natural decisions, and are thus likely to drive brains into regimes for which they are evolved. Indeed, growing evidence indicates that decision patterns may differ systematically in foraging and non-foraging conditions.

• Because foraging decisions are the direct result of brain computations, neuroscience provides a natural solid foundation for understanding foraging, and natural behavior more broadly.

• Foraging theories provide a rigorous framework for studying factors such as social behavior and consequences across longer time spans that are often ignored by conventional neuroscientific approaches.

• Foraging provides a good model for many decisions we make in our daily lives, and the existence of a firm mathematical background based on decades of careful behavioral studies provides an important framework against which to test neuroscientific data. This is particularly important because people’s decision making is often consistently disrupted in diseases like depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and addiction.


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