The quantitative study of the ways in which our brains respond to physical stimuli bears the name of psychophysics.
Simply put, psychophysics concerns how our brains process sensory information, such as light, sound, and taste, and react to it.
However, a new study rekindles interest in the field, as researchers from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom turn to the behavior of superorganisms to analyze existing psychosocial laws and investigate whether they illuminate aspects of human decision-making.
The researchers — led by Andreagiovanni Reina, a research associate in collective robotics at the University of Sheffield's Department of Computer Science — are the first to show that honey bees' behavior may obey the same psychophysical laws as the human brain when it has to discriminate between different sensory inputs and make decisions based on them.
The findings may open the door to newer, simpler, and more effective ways to study the human brain.
The three laws that rule our decision-making
Reina and colleagues tested the validity of three main psychosocial laws for the behavior of the honey bee colony: Piéron's Law, the Hick-Hyman Law, and Weber's Law.
The researchers wanted to see whether or not these laws applied to the process through which honey bees "decide" which nesting site to choose, "examining" high-quality nesting sites and comparing them with low-quality ones.
Therefore, they modeled this nest site selection process, all the while accounting for the proportion of bees committed to a certain nest over another, how this commitment might change over time, and the behavioral mechanisms at play behind such changes.
The study found that honey bee colonies obey the same three main psychosocial laws in their decision-making process as the human brain.
How bee colonies make decisions
Specifically, the study found that for bees, too, it was easier to decide between two nest options when both options were of high quality.
This confirms the validity of Piéron's law, which states that humans make decisions quicker when the two options they're confronted with are of a high sensory quality, compared with when they are of a low quality.
The Hick-Hyman law states — rather intuitively — that the higher the number of options is, the more difficult it is for the human brain to choose. This, too, was confirmed in how the bee colony chose between alternative nesting sites.
Following up on Piéron's law, Weber's law states that the smaller the difference in quality between two options, the more difficult it is to make the decision, and that the difference is small in low-quality options but large in high-quality ones.
The analysis of the bee colony revealed that this superorganism, too, followed this proportional relationship in its decision-making processes.
Bees are like neurons
As the authors conclude, "Similarly to neurons, no individual explicitly encodes in its simple actions the dynamics determining the psychophysical laws; instead it is the group as a whole that displays such dynamics."
On the significance of the findings, Reina says, "This study is exciting because it suggests that honey bee colonies adhere to the same laws as the brain when making collective decisions."
"The study also supports the view of bee colonies as being similar to complete organisms or better still, superorganisms, composed of a large number of fully developed and autonomous individuals that interact with each other to bring forth a collective response."
"With this view in mind," he continues, "parallels between bees in a colony and neurons in a brain can be traced, helping us to understand and identify the general mechanisms underlying psychophysics laws [...]"
This, Reina concludes, "may ultimately lead to a better understanding of the human brain."
"Finding similarities between the behavior of honey bee colonies and brain neurons is useful because the behavior of bees selecting a nest is simpler than studying neurons in a brain that makes decisions."