Free Will and the Brain: Neuroeconomics and the Science of Decision-Making

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
June 28, 2021 - August 11, 20216/28 - 8/116 WeeksOnlineWaitlistedOnlineLouis Gularte

Course Description

What happens in your brain when you decide to buy a lottery ticket or go on a date with someone? What about when you spend hundreds of dollars on an expensive gadget that you stop using after a few months, or when you decide to say something that you should have known would be embarrassing? Are economic decisions and decisions in general the result of a messy fight between a 'rational' part of your brain and an 'irrational' one, or is decision-making all the result of one underlying and possibly unconscious mechanism?

This course is designed to give a tour of the brain in its capacity as the 'organ of economics', exploring the neuroscience of decision-making and its implications for how we think about free will, value, 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 students in this course will be uniquely well-situated to understand why they decided to take it!

Neuroeconomics is an exciting and interdisciplinary field aimed at a unified understanding of economic decision-making and decision-making more generally. Its goal is to bridge the gap between neuroscience on the one hand and behavioral economics and game theory on the other.

The course will involve reading articles from behavioral economics and neuroscience, as well as cognitive scientific and philosophical readings related to free will, rationality, and the nature of value. That primary material will be supplemented by occasional short videos and browser- and smartphone-based games from experimental economics. Assignments will include two short essays and a choice between a longer essay and research proposal, with at least one of those three being focused on an empirical question and at least one defending a theoretical position.

A central focus throughout will be on how the brain represents things as having different degrees of value and disvalue. A core part of that investigation concerns the mechanisms by which we come to 'see' something as valuable, the dynamics of weighing values against each other, and the connection to motivation and behavior.

Secondly, the course will give students practice with scientific and argumentative writing. Some emphasis will be placed on demystifying the academic writing process and its 'point.' Given the importance placed on writing in college, the course should thus be useful quite broadly.

Given its interdisciplinary nature, the course will also expose students to the increasingly valued skill of reading scientific research with an eye towards its implications for other disciplines.

Students can expect to get an accessible primer on neuroscience and a more in-depth introduction to recent research with practical implications for the decisions we make in our lives.

Prerequisites: There are no prerequisites. While a good grasp of algebra 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.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEBN0937

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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