Even Fruit Flies Need a Moment to Think It Over; Researchers have found that when faced with hard choices, fruit flies take more time to make a decision

Even Fruit Flies Need a Moment to Think It Over


Researchers have found that when faced with hard choices, fruit flies take more time to make a decision. CreditAmy Xinyang Hong and Cedric Tan

It’s easy to think of fruit flies as tiny robots that simply respond reflexively to their environment. But just like humans, they take time to collect information and to deliberate when faced with a difficult choice, according to a new study.

The findings, published in the journal Science, could help researchers study cognitive development and defects in humans.

Scientists have long been fascinated by decision-making, said an author of the study, Dr. Gero Miesenböck, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford.

“Going back to the 19th century, psychologists have measured how long it takes humans to make up their minds,” he said. “Usually if you give people a hard perceptual choice, they take longer, because the brain needs to integrate information until it has enough to make a decision.

“This is the first time in an animal as low as a fruit fly we have been able to show that similar processes occur.”

To study how flies make up their minds, Oxford researchers placed the animals in bifurcated chambers filled on both sides with an odor they had been taught to avoid. When the odor was clearly more potent on one side of the chamber than the other, the flies were quick to choose which chamber to inhabit (and nearly always chose the less odorous one). But when the difference between chambers was subtle, the flies took longer to make a decision, and were more apt to make the wrong choice.

“We were surprised,” Dr. Miesenböck said. “The original thought was that the flies would just act impulsively, they won’t take time to deliberate. We found that’s not true.”

The process so closely mimics decision-making in humans, the researchers said, that the same mathematical models used to describe the actions of deliberating people can be used to predict a fly’s behavior.

The common link between fly and human mental activity appears to beFOXP, a gene that is closely associated with cognitive development and language in humans. Flies with a defective copy of FOXP were found to take much longer making up their minds, the researchers said. Defects in human versions of FOXP have been linked to low intelligence and difficulties with language.

Shamik DasGupta, an Oxford neuroscientist who was the study’s lead author, compared making a decision with a defective version of FOXP to trying to collect water in a leaky bucket. Before making decisions, brain circuits will gather information the way a bucket collects water. In healthy brains, a decision is made when the amount of information reaches a certain level. But when FOXP is defective, “either the flow of information into the bucket is reduced to a trickle, or the bucket has sprung a leak,” he wrote in an article on the lab’s website.

Precisely what role FOXP plays in the various mental processes to which it has been linked — movement, thought, communication, decision-making — remains a mystery. Dr. Miesenböck said. “One factor that’s common to all these processes is they occur as sequences over time,” Dr. Miesenböck said. “So perhaps what FOXP does is configures brain circuits to be able to process sequences of information.”

Michael J. Frank, a neuroscientist at Brown University who was not involved in the study, called it “intriguing” that FOXP might be implicated in the same tasks in flies as in humans. One question raised by the research, he said, is whether the defective gene would affect a fly’s ability to gather information through other senses. “Could it extend to all domains of cognition and motor control, or is it really specific to this particular kind of task?” he asked.

At the very least, though, the new research suggests that opposable thumbs are not a prerequisite for hand-wringing. “We now know that cognitive abilities are found very low on the evolutionary tree,” Dr. Miesenböck said.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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