Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-ndmmz Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-25T04:15:53.264Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Model Organisms for Studying Decision-Making: A Phylogenetically Expanded Perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022


This article explores the use of model organisms in studying the cognitive phenomenon of decision-making. Drawing on the framework of biological control to develop a skeletal conception of decision-making, we show that two core features of decision-making mechanisms can be identified by studying model organisms, such as E. coli, jellyfish, C. elegans, lamprey, and so on. First, decision mechanisms are distributed and heterarchically structured. Second, they depend heavily on chemical information processing, such as that involving neuromodulators. We end by discussing the implications for studying distinctively human decision-making.

Cognitive Sciences
Copyright 2021 by the Philosophy of Science Association. All rights reserved.

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


This work is supported in part by a fellowship to Linus Ta-Lun Huang, sponsored by Academia Sinica, Taiwan. This research is also supported in part by grants sponsored by Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades, Spain, to Leonardo Bich (RYC-2016-19798) and to Leonardo Bich and William Bechtel (PID2019-104576GB-I00) and by Eusko Jaurlaritza (Basque Government; IT1228-19) to Leonardo Bich.


Ankeny, Rachel A., and Leonelli, Sabina. 2020. Model Organisms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ashby, F. G., Turner, B. O., and Horvitz, J. C.. 2010. “Cortical and Basal Ganglia Contributions to Habit Learning and Automaticity.” Trends in Cognitive Science 14:208–15.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bard, Philip, and Macht, Martin B.. 1958. “The Behaviour of Chronically Decerebrate Cats.” In Ciba Foundation Symposium on the Neurological Basis of Behaviour, 5571. Boston: Little, Brown.Google Scholar
Bargmann, C. I. 2012. “Beyond the Connectome: How Neuromodulators Shape Neural Circuits.” Bioessays 34:458–65.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bechtel, William. 2019. “Resituating Cognitive Mechanisms within Heterarchical Networks Controlling Physiology and Behavior.” Theory and Psychology 29:620–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bechtel, William, and Abrahamsen, Adele. 2005. “Explanation: A Mechanist Alternative.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 36:421–41.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bich, Leonardo. 2018. “Robustness and Autonomy in Biological Systems: How Regulatory Mechanisms Enable Functional Integration, Complexity and Minimal Cognition through the Action of Second-Order Control Constraints.” In Biological Robustness: Emerging Perspectives from within the Life Sciences, ed. Bertolaso, Marta, Caianiello, Silvia, and Serrelli, Emanuele, 123–47. Cham: Springer.Google Scholar
Briggman, Kevin L., Abarbanel, Henry D. I., and Kristan, William B.. 2005. “Optical Imaging of Neuronal Populations during Decision-Making.” Science 307:896901.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Crisp, K. M., and Mesce, K. A.. 2006. “Beyond the Central Pattern Generator: Amine Modulation of Decision-Making Neural Pathways Descending from the Brain of the Medicinal Leech.” Journal of Experimental Biology 209:1746–56.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Falke, Joseph J., and Piasta, Kene N.. 2014. “Architecture and Signal Transduction Mechanism of the Bacterial Chemosensory Array: Progress, Controversies, and Challenges.” Current Opinion in Structural Biology 29:8594.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Gaudry, Quentin, and Kristan, William B.. 2009. “Behavioral Choice by Presynaptic Inhibition of Tactile Sensory Terminals.” Nature Neuroscience 12:1450–57.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hills, Thomas T., Todd, Peter M., Lazer, David, Redish, A. David, Couzin, I. D., and the Cognitive Search Research Group. 2015. “Exploration versus Exploitation in Space, Mind, and Society.” Trends in Cognitive Science 19:4654.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Holland, N. D. 2003. “Early Central Nervous System Evolution: An Era of Skin Brains?Nature Reviews Neuroscience 4:617–27.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Huang, L. T. 2017. “Neurodemocracy: Self-Organization of the Embodied Mind.” PhD diss., University of Sydney.Google Scholar
Keijzer, Fred, Duijn, Marc van, and Lyon, Pamela. 2013. “What Nervous Systems Do: Early Evolution, Input-Output, and the Skin Brain Thesis.” Adaptive Behavior 21:6785.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Levy, Arnon, and Currie, Adrian. 2014. “Model Organisms Are Not (Theoretical) Models.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 66:327–48.Google Scholar
Machamer, Peter, Darden, Lindley, and Craver, Carl F.. 2000. “Thinking about Mechanisms.” Philosophy of Science 67:125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mackie, G. O. 2004. “Central Neural Circuitry in the Jellyfish Aglantha—a Model ‘Simple Nervous System.’Neurosignals 13:519.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mackie, G. O., Meech, R. W., and Spencer, A. N.. 2012. “A New Inhibitory Pathway in the Jellyfish Polyorchis Penicillatus.Canadian Journal of Zoology 90:172–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McCulloch, Warren S. 1945. “A Heterarchy of Values Determined by the Topology of Nervous Nets.” Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics 7:8993.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Moreno, Alvaro, and Mossio, Matteo. 2015. Biological Autonomy: A Philosophical and Theoretical Inquiry. Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Muñoz-Dorado, José, Marcos-Torres, Francisco J., García-Bravo, Elena, Moraleda-Muñoz, Aurelio, and Pérez, Juana. 2016. “Myxobacteria: Moving, Killing, Feeding, and Surviving Together.” Frontiers in Microbiology 7.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Pattee, Howard Hunt. 1991. “Measurement-Control Heterarchical Networks in Living Systems.” International Journal of General Systems 18:213–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Puhl, J. G., and Mesce, K. A.. 2008. “Dopamine Activates the Motor Pattern for Crawling in the Medicinal Leech.” Journal of Neuroscience 28:4192–200.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Satterlie, Richard A. 2018. “Jellyfish Locomotion.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Sourjik, Victor, and Wingreen, Ned S.. 2012. “Responding to Chemical Gradients: Bacterial Chemotaxis.” Current Opinion in Cell Biology 24:262–68.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Stephenson-Jones, Marcus, Ericsson, Jesper, Robertson, Brita, and Grillner, Sten. 2012. “Evolution of the Basal Ganglia: Dual-Output Pathways Conserved throughout Vertebrate Phylogeny.” Journal of Comparative Neurology 520:2957–73.Google ScholarPubMed
Varela, Francisco J. 1979. Principles of Biological Autonomy. New York: North Holland.Google Scholar
Varshney, L. R., Chen, B. L., Paniagua, E., Hall, D. H., and Chklovskii, D. B.. 2011. “Structural Properties of the Caenorhabditis Elegans Neuronal Network.” PLoS Computational Biology 7:e1001066.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Weber, Marcel. 2005. Philosophy of Experimental Biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Weisberg, Michael. 2013. Simulation and Similarity: Using Models to Understand the World. New York: Oxford.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Whelan, P. J. 1996. “Control of Locomotion in the Decerebrate Cat.” Progress in Neurobiology 49:481515.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
White, John G., Southgate, E., Thomson, J. N., and Brenner, Sydney. 1986. “The Structure of the Nervous System of the Nematode Caenorhabditis Elegans.Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 314:1340.Google ScholarPubMed
Winning, Jason, and Bechtel, William. 2018. “Rethinking Causality in Neural Mechanisms: Constraints and Control.” Minds and Machines 28:287310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar