Visualising decision making

22 February 2016

Vickie Li (Croucher Scholarship 2015) is an experimental psychologist based in the Oxford Perceptual Decision Making Lab, whose research brings together the fields of cognitive control and perceptual decision making, both developed fields in their own right but rarely studied in conjunction. Using neural imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and model-based electroencephalography (EEG) she has developed a computational model that can predict human behaviour.

Li’s research combines perceptual decision making, which is the process of understanding how an organism evaluates and interprets sensory information despite it sometimes being corrupted by other, conflicting information; and cognitive control, the mechanism required to pursue a goal that often necessitates overcoming a habitual response. Li explained that the merit of using perceptual decision making to explore cognitive control was that she could use pre-existing models and advanced computational programs. The short term aim of the research is to create a computational model which can accurately predict human behaviour based on an input, for instance given the human behavioural performance of a task, if a model can accurately simulate human performance, then we can make an inference of the underlying behavioural mechanism or even the neural mechanism for processing certain stimuli. This can be predicted by examining neuron firing rates, as people with disorders tend to have neuron fire that is inconsistent in comparison to those without disorders. Based on how the model responds, a human response to certain situations or certain stimuli can be forecast.

Creating a model that replicates the many actions of the brain while also being simple enough to reliably predict human behaviour is difficult, but despite this challenge Li has developed a working model. This model is still being developed, and she hopes it could soon be used for biological data in addition to behaviour prediction. Currently the model can establish which areas of cognitive control have been affected, and therefore highlight areas of the brain that require attention, but in the future Li hopes the model could cross over and be useful in clinical psychology and neuroscience fields. She hopes that as her career progresses, her work in experimental psychology will aid clinical psychology, to better understand issues of cognitive control and improve people's lives.

While Li’s research is relevant to all people, she hopes that it could particularly help those with disorders, ranging from autism to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to schizophrenia. Executive function and cognitive control are often problematic for people with such disorders, because they frequently have lesions in the prefrontal cortex, the centre of cognitive control. These lesions can create issues linked to both emotional regulation and controlling negative thoughts, and response inhibition, which can cause impulsivity. Li feels that the next step in her career would be creating models which could be applied to people suffering from disorders and hopefully, in the long term, will help establish a training program for those recovering from or coping with disorders, such as a cognitive training app. Li’s personal experience with people who have disorders or injuries which have caused cognitive control difficulties initially sparked her interest in the clinical psychology field, and since then this has been her passion.

For the first two years of her undergraduate degree, Li studied at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), but after being awarded the Dr Serena Yang HKU-Oxford scholarship she transferred to the University of Oxford for her final year. Li was surprised to win the scholarship and while very grateful for all the awards she has been granted, she feels this scholarship in particular has subsequently shaped her whole career by allowing her to study in Oxford. After finishing her undergraduate degree, Li worked at the University of Oxford as a lab assistant for a year, before being asked to join the Perceptual Decision Making Lab by Professor Chris Summerfield, where she is working on her DPhil. Li was initially reluctant to join the lab, as it meant leaping into the experimental psychology field, which she had never worked in before, and required computational skills which she had no background in. However Summerfield’s friendly and supportive attitude, and the ethos that anyone who is willing can learn, persuaded her. The Perceptual Decision Making Lab employs around fifteen people, only a couple of whom are students, and while the team’s central focus is decision making, the exact research varies from person to person. Topics being studied range from high level human cognition, such as learning and planning, to lower level perceptual decision making, including brain processing and economical decision making. Li finds the lab a highly stimulating working environment as she believes in the importance of discussing work with others and working with a range of people in order to find new insights into your own research, and for this reason Li aspires to work in other labs or in other countries over the course of her career, also partially to provide a break from the English weather.

Vickie Li obtained her BSocSc from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in 2014, majoring in psychology. She received several awards and scholarships during her degree, including the Dean’s Honours List and the Y.K. Pao Scholarship in Psychology. She was also awarded the Dr Serena Yang HKU-Oxford Scholarship which allowed her to undertake her final year of studying at Oxford University. At Oxford she was supervised by Professor Chris Summerfield, with whom she worked as a research assistant at the Perceptual Decision Making Lab, where she began to look into links between cognitive control and perceptual decision making with his guidance. She remained at Ox-ford and continued to research this topic during her D.Phil, using using model-based fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) as well as model-based EEG (electroencephalography) and computational modelling techniques.

To view Vickie's personal Croucher profile, please click here.