Free Will and the Brain: The Neuroscience of Decision-Making

Course Description

This course is designed to give a tour of the brain in its capacity as the 'organ of economics and computation', exploring the neuroscience of decision-making and its implications for how we think about free will, value, strategy, and rationality. It should thus be of interest to anyone curious about how and why we make the decisions we make and how, if possible, to make them better, so by taking this course you will be uniquely well-situated to understand why you made that decision!

The course will explore different aspects of a decision-making process, including (1) the algorithms for decision-making, i.e., how can math and statistical methods help us solve the kind of decisions we make every day, (2) the neurological basis of decision-making in the brain and (3) the psychological, social and philosophical factors that influence our decision-making. You will learn through interactive in-class demonstrations, games, computer simulations, and group discussions, supplemented with articles from behavioral economics, neuroscience, cognitive science, and philosophical readings related to free will, rationality, and the nature of value.

The course will emphasize helping you make connections between the scientific principles you learn in class and your daily experience, i.e., how can what you learn help you to understand your own and other people's behaviors. You will be encouraged to reflect on what you learn in the class and how you make decisions via journaling and sharing those insights with other students. Instructors will lead with their own examples.

The course will also aim at showing how math can be less abstract and more accessible if we link it with everyday situations and explain the algorithms in a step-by-step fashion. Students who want to lower their anxiety towards learning and using math will have the opportunity to work with the instructor to make a presentation that explains a decision algorithm to other students.

By the end of this course, you will:
• Gain knowledge on how the brain collects information, making inferences, assigning different degrees of values, and dynamically weighing values against each other.
• Develop understandings and self-reflection on what shapes our decision strategies and value systems.
• Be exposed to how mathematically modeling and computer simulation can help us understand behavior.
• Practice reading scientific literature and extracting useful information.


There are no prerequisites. While a good grasp of algebra and probability theory and any exposure to neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, or economics would be helpful, the course is designed to get everyone up to speed enough to dive in.


One Section Available to Choose From:

Online sections of Pre-College courses are offered in one of the following modalities: Asynchronous, Mostly asynchronous, or Blended. Please review full information regarding the experience here.

Dates: July 11, 2022 - July 22, 2022
Duration: 2 Weeks
Meeting Times: M-F 8:30A-11:20A
Status: Closed
Format: On-Campus
Instructor(s): Yunshu Fan
Course Number: 10369