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Thinking different: U of T’s newest Canada Research Chairs are exploring new frontiers in knowledge and innovation

Cendri Hutcherson, an assistant professor of psychology at U of T Scarborough, is one of 16 researchers at the university awarded a new Canada Research Chair by the federal government this spring (photo by Ken Jones)

Anyone on a diet can attest to the apparent willpower needed to forego a pint of ice cream in the freezer and reach for a leafy green vegetable instead.

Yet, while making a “healthy choice” often feels onerous – if not downright cruel – Cendri Hutcherson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, says it may have surprisingly little to do with self-control.

Hutcherson’s research, which involves building computational models that can accurately predict both behaviour and brain activation of test subjects, shows we can dramatically improve our chances of making the “right” decision by simply changing the way we think about our options.

 “Often times when we make these decisions, we subjectively feel like there’s this battle going on, with a devil on the one side and an angel on the other – and the devil feels that much more powerful,” says Hutcherson, who is also the director of the Toronto Decision Neuroscience Lab.

“But our research is saying this experience may be a bit misleading because relatively simple shifts in your attention or goals can change the underlying feeling – so now it’s harder to choose the ice cream over the broccoli.”

Hutcherson is just one of 16 U of T researchers awarded a new Canada Research Chair by the federal government this spring. Their work ranges from stopping fungal “superbugs” to developing electric vehicles and understanding the effects of war on civilians. Another 12 researchers at U of T had their chairs renewed or advanced. (See lists below.)
 
The Canada Research Chairs program enables U of T to attract and retain the best and most promising researchers from around the world. In addition to conducting research that improves our depth of knowledge and quality of life, the university’s allocation of 275 Canada Research Chairs significantly enhances its capacity to train the next generation of leaders in their fields through student supervision and teaching.
 

U of T's 275 Canada Research Chairs marks the largest number for one institution in the history of the program, and the largest number of any institution in Canada.

“I want to congratulate all of the new and renewed Canada Research Chairs at the University of Toronto and thank the government for supporting their important work,” says Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation.

“We are grateful to the Government of Canada for its ongoing investments in the Canada Research Chairs program and for the additional funding for this program announced in Budget 2018. Such investments not only yield new knowledge, but set the stage for important innovations ranging from new cancer therapies to sustainable transportation technologies that will improve lives in Canada and around the world.”

In Hutcherson’s case, those innovations go to the very core of our being. Continuing with her example of healthy eating, she says her research shows most people are cognitively “soft-wired” to process sensations like taste faster than outcomes like health, likely for evolutionary reasons. But she says the wiring can effectively be rerouted simply by thinking about the long-term consequences of making an unhealthy choice – say, a future where you’re obese and facing heart surgery.

“This isn’t to say this is the only thing that matters, or that there aren’t cases where people say, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t eat it, but I kind of still want to,’ Hutcherson cautions. “But we’re finding these manipulations or training of attention can be surprisingly effective.”

Hutcherson says the Canada Research Chair in Decision Neuroscience will support her study into whether long-term practice or training can change how the brain assesses different options.

“Can we make it, essentially, so that [choosing] health is automatic?”

Hutcherson is applying the same neuroscience approach to understanding decisions relating to morality, altruism and social preferences. What is it that allows people to act selfishly versus generously? When and why do they take other’s perspectives into consideration? What is it that leads them to prioritize themselves over others?

That, in turn, could yield insights into some of the challenges we face in our modern, always-connected world – a place where internet giants like Facebook and Twitter have sometimes been accused of not only bringing out the worst in their users, but compromising our social and political discourse in the process.

“We live in a very interconnected society and a lot of our decisions require us to think about the effects our actions will not only have on ourselves, but also on other people,” Hutcherson says.

“My research starts from the assumption that we can’t really understand those big questions unless we understand the neural computations that are leading to those leading decisions – and the way to understand those neural computations and understand how the brain is making those decisions is essentially to build simulations.”

Ultimately, Hutcherson says she hopes the field will progress to point where computational models can offer personalized treatment for people suffering from illnesses like drug addiction, which can be caused by a litany of factors that vary from person to person.

“We might be able to develop much more personalized and more effective interventions, rather than [the current] one-size-fits-all approach,” she says.

All that said, Hutcherson cautions that “in the end, the brain is not a perfect computer – it’s noisy.” And random. In other words, thinking all the right things doesn’t guarantee you won’t occasionally scarf down a tub of mint chocolate chip or hit send on a tweet you immediately regret – though it could help lessen your chances.

“People should go easy on themselves,” Hutcherson advises.

“Making mistakes is part of being human – it’s part of the brain that we have.”


The new Canada Research Chairs at U of T are:

Warren Chan, Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering and department of chemistry – Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Nanobioengineering

Leah Cowen, Faculty of Medicine, department of molecular genetics – Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics & Infectious Disease

Roger Grosse, Faculty of Arts & Science, department of computer science and Vector Institute – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Probabilistic Inference and Deep Learning

Randall Hansen, Faculty of Arts & Science, department of political science and Munk School of Global Affairs – Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Global Migration

Xi Huang, Faculty of Medicine, department of molecular genetics and SickKids hospital – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Cancer Biophysics

Cendri Hutcherson, department of psychology at University of Toronto Scarborough – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Decision Neuroscience

Murray Krahn, Faculty of Medicine, department of medicine and Toronto General Hospital – Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Health Technology Assessment

Arthur Mortha, Faculty of Medicine, department of immunology – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Mucosal Immunology

Kelly O’Brien, Faculty of Medicine, department of physical therapy – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Episodic Disability and Rehabilitation

Laurence Pelletier, Faculty of Medicine, department of molecular genetics and Mount Sinai Hospital – Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Centrosome Biogenesis and Function

Trevor Pugh, Faculty of Medicine, department of medical biophysics and Princess Margaret Cancer Centre – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Translational Genomics

Dilip Soman, Rotman School of Management – Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Science and Economics

Olivier Trescases, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, department of electrical and computer engineering – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Power Electronic Converters

Subodh Verma, Faculty of Medicine, department of surgery and St. Michael’s Hospital – Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Cardiovascular Surgery

Joel Watts, Tanz Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases and Faculty of Medicine, department of biochemistry – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Protein Misfolding Disorders

Michael Widener, Faculty of Arts & Science, department of geography and planning – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Transportation and Health


The renewed and advanced Canada Research Chairs at U of T are:

Amy Caudy, Faculty of Medicine, Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Metabolomics for Functional Enzyme Discovery

Brian Cox, Faculty of Medicine, department of physiology – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Placental Development, Health and Disease

Glenn Hibbard, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, department of materials science and engineering – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Multi-Scale Materials Dynamics

Ashish Khisti, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Information Processing

Jeffrey Lee, Faculty of Medicine, department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Structural Virology

Zheng-Hong Lu, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, department of materials science and engineering – Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Organic Optoelectronics

Thierry Mallevaey, Faculty of Medicine, department of immunology – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Unconventional T Cell Immunobiology

Martin Pickavé, Faculty of Arts & Science, department of philosophy – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Medieval Philosophy

Edward Sargent, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering – Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology

Yu Sun, Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, department of mechanical and industrial engineering – Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Micro and Nano Engineering Systems

Michael Tymianski, Faculty of Medicine, department of surgery and University Health Network – Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Translational Stroke Research

Michael Wilson, Faculty of Medicine, department of molecular genetics and SickKids hospital – Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Comparative Genomics