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LAist Interview: Meghana Bhatt

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LAist's20 Under 30 interview series of outstanding Angelenos in their 20s continues with Meghana Bhatt, a graduate student in economics at Caltech researching how the human brain makes decisions (and why people aren't logical about their economic choices). Basically, she sticks people in an MRI and watches their brains while they play games.

Age and Occupation:
26, graduate student in economics

How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and where do you live now?
I've lived in Pasadena for about 3 1/2 years.

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Why do you live in Los Angeles?
I came here to go to graduate school at CalTech.

Why did you enter your field of study?
I've always been interested in interdisciplinary research, when I was an undergrad I studied behavioral economics, which incorporates psychology into the study of economics. I became more interested in the biology of decision when I was working on a project involving self-control. Then I was lucky enough to come to Caltech when economists were just starting to work with neuroscientists to get a deeper understanding of decision-making.

You use MRI technology to show when a person makes a decision--what are you looking for when taking an MRI of brain activity involved in decision-making, and what is the typical problem that you give your respondents to think about while they are undergoing the MRI?
What we're actually monitoring is the level of oxygenated blood in different areas of the brain. This isn't a direct of effect of electrical activity, but it is highly correlated with neural activity according to a hemodynamic response function. When you are using one part of the brain a lot it needs more oxygen, so slightly after the beginning of a burst of activity you see an increase in oxygenated blood flow. With fMRI we're taking advantage of the fact that oxygenated blood has different magnetic properties than deoxygenated blood. One big advantage of fMRI is that it's relatively fast, you can take a full image of the brain in 2 seconds, and you get really good localization of activity, we look at cubes (voxels) of activity that are 3mm x 3mm x 3mm, which is pretty precise.

The problems I give people usually involve some sort of strategic interaction with another person. One study I did involved people playing simple games against another person outside the scanner (if you've ever taken game theory, they were dominance solvable normal form games, if you want a longer description let me know). The subjects each had to make a choice in the game, they were then asked to guess what "move" their opponent had made, and what they thought their opponent would guess about them. This was a study meant to examine how people form beliefs about each other in a strategic situation. I was particularly interested in how people thought their opponents viewed them — a self-referential belief.

I'm extremely interested in these self-referential beliefs. People are deeply affected by how they think others perceive them (which isn't always the same thing as how others *actually* perceive them), they spend inordinate amounts of time and money trying to manipulate the image they project to the world. My current study is more focused on how people can manipulate this image as opposed to just thinking about it. I hope this isn't too convoluted.

How does living in Los Angeles and Southern California inform your research? What kinds of resources/facilities/feedback can you get here rather than in another region?
Obviously, my school is an amazing resource. There are very few other universities in the world where neuroeconomics is currently being done. In addition to the fact that this is probably the only university where economics graduate student have access to an fMRI scanner, the faculty here is incredibly innovative.

Do you watch "Deal or No Deal" like all the other behavioral economists?
Yeah :), it's funny how such a simple game can be so fascinating.

Have you ever taken an MRI of your brain? Why or why not?
I've been a subject in some of my friend's experiments, their research group is working on understanding the premotor area of the brain and building prosthetics that can take signals directly from this area.

What's the freakiest thing you've seen someone do with an MRI scan?
That's a tough question, most of our experiments are actually pretty straightforward, we never deceive subjects and just ask them to make decisions. My experiments tend to center on strategic interactions between people.

Actually, now I remember, there was an Ignobel awarded a few years ago for a Dutch study of male and female genitalia during intercourse.

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What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA?
I enjoyed "Angel" when it was still on TV, and my favorite LA movies are L.A. Story with Steve Martin and Clueless.

What's the best place to walk in LA?
Griffith Park.

What is the "center" of LA to you?
West Hollywood. I'm generally fond of anyplace where I can just wander around for a while.

If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?
If I could live anywhere, I'd love to live on the beach.

People stereotype Los Angeles as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do you find it challenging to make new friends here?
I think it was pretty challenging at first, especially since I'd recently lived in San Francisco where it's particularly easy to meet people. You can more or less strike up a conversation with anyone at a bar or cafe, or on the bus. People here are more guarded, after I made a few good friends meeting other people got easier.

What is the city's greatest secret?
The music scene here can't be beaten. Any weekend you can go and see a really good concert for under 20 dollars.

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
errr, New York? Unless you meant in LA, then probably my office in the basement off one of the buildings at CalTech. It seems pretty sturdy.

If you could make one thing be different in LA for your 30th birthday, what would you change?
I'd probably like a comprehensive, convenient, and affordable public transportation system — but I think that's probably logistically impossible. I'm from the east coast, I'm used to much denser cities. A more realistic choice might be that they *finally* renovate the sewer systems so that the ocean doesn't become toxic every time it rains.