Benjamin Hayden, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester who is helping to unravel the mysteries of how humans make decisions, has been selected as a 2012 Sloan Research Fellow.
Awarded annually by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation since 1955, the fellowships are given to early-career scientists and scholars whose achievements and potential identify them as rising stars. Each fellowship carries a $50,000, two-year award to help support the recipient's research.
"Today's Sloan Research Fellows are tomorrow's Nobel Prize winners… These outstanding men and women are responsible for some of the most exciting science being done today," says Paul L. Joskow, president of the Sloan Foundation.
An assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, Hayden studies self-control and decision-making from diverse perspectives, including psychology, neuroscience, animal behavior, even philosophy and popular culture.
"We used to think that humans used evaluation and comparison to make decisions, but now that model has been blown open and a new one has yet to form," says Hayden. Neuroscience research, he explains, has demonstrated that the brain responds to rewards on a neurological level long before our awareness is activated.
The challenge of better understanding these subconscious decision-making mechanisms has Hayden hooked. "I just love this field," he says. When he goes to a store and has to choose between cereal types, for example, he can't help but contemplate what his brain must be doing to help him decide. "It's my inner life. I think about it all the time," he confesses.
That intense intellectual curiosity has led to first-author papers in Science, Nature Neuroscience, Neuron, PNAS, and other leading peer-reviewed journals and to important discoveries unusual for a scientist so early in his career, wrote Greg DeAngelis, professor and chair of brain and cognitive sciences, in his letter of support for the Sloan fellowship. Such productivity "attests to Ben's tremendous creativity, drive, and scientific vision. This level of productivity is almost unheard of in the area of neurophysiology with awake-behaving primates," DeAngelis wrote.
Hayden's work has shown, for example, that animals are less impulsive than previously thought. Other research has documented the complex neural mechanisms involved in foraging – how the brain computes when to switch behavior. For example, how does the brain recognize that it is time to move on from an area when the resources are dwindling to seek a more fruitful spot. Such basic understanding may be critical to developing new treatments for behavior problems like addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder – diseases that are characterized by an inability to switch behaviors when they have become unproductive.
Moving forward, Hayden's lab is focused on understanding the neural basis of self-control and the mechanisms of value-based choices.
Hayden completed his doctorate in molecular and cell biology from the University of California at Berkeley and was a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, before joining the University of Rochester in July 2011. He is the recipient of a career development award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the 2009 Outstanding Young Investigator from the Society for Neuroeconomics, and a National Institutes of Health K99/R00 award for promising new faculty members.
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation honored 126 U.S. and Canadian researchers with fellowships this year.