About Us

Note: We are hiring! We are looking for a scientist program manager for a new NIMH Conte center on latent cause inference and mental health. Please contact yael@princeton.edu if you are interested. Other than that, the Niv Lab is currently quite full and we are not actively searching for students, nor do we currently have open positions for postdocs.

The Niv Lab focuses on several distinct and inter-related lines of research related to understanding the computational basis of learning and decision making in the brain. We use behavior – and sometimes neural data – to constrain computational models of how experience changes future decisions and choices (i.e., learning), and we apply this understanding to understanding mental health conditions and tailoring their treatment. 

One major theme of our research is understanding how animals and humans learn useful task representations, effectively grouping experience into latent causes or clusters that allow fast and generalizable learning. A second focus is on computational psychiatry/psychotherapy. Here we use computational models of learning and decision making to study mental health conditions, e.g., related to mood and anxiety, and transdiagnostic symptoms such as rumination. Guided by computational models, we develop behavioral assays that cut across diagnoses in order to understand the underlying axes of mental health, and to predict treatment response. 

As an integral part of our research, we run experiments on human participants. These mostly consist of behavioral experiments, many of which are conducted on large online samples. Occasionally, we conduct fMRI experiments when we have a hypothesis regarding brain mechanisms that can be answered better by looking into the brain. We also run studies on patient populations (through the Rutgers-Princeton Center for Computational Cognitive NeuroPsychiatry). 

Our primary modeling frameworks are reinforcement learning and (Bayesian) latent-cause inference, and we make heavy use of (hierarchical) model-fitting and statistical model comparison. We also use machine-learning techniques of multivariate pattern analysis and representation similarity analysis of fMRI data, as well as classification and decoding techniques in neural data analysis. Computational modeling is not only a tool we use to analyze data; it is really how we think about function in the brain, so everything we do involves modeling in a recurrent feedback loop between experimental data and model. 

We also have other interests that are somewhat loosely tied to our main focus areas. These include projects as diverse as modeling social interactions (in particular, mentoring), investigating the flexibility of the goals we set ourselves, understanding “readiness for change,” and investigating the interaction between social media use and mental health. In general, our focus shifts slightly over time, through the interests of lab members, as we encourage lab members to focus their research on the questions they are most passionate about (of course, we accept to the lab those whose interests align with our current interests). This means that while we have some overarching themes to our work, projects may not always feel strongly interconnected. In any case, we encourage crosstalk between projects, collaboration within the lab and outside it, and we support individual exploration and growth. In an effort to uncover the “hidden curriculum” of academic work, we have a detailed lab manual that expresses our co-created values, expectations, and lab rules.

List of grants currently supporting our research: 

NIMH R01 – A Computational Psychiatry Investigation of the effects of Mood on Reward Learning and Attention – The goal of this research is to test the prediction that bipolar disorder and major depression can be distinguished from one another at both a behavioral and a neural level, in terms of different patterns of abnormal interaction between mood, reinforcement learning, and attention.

NIDA R01 – Decoding the dynamic representation of reward predictions across mesocorticostriatal circuits during learning – This project uses a treasure trove of previously recorded neural data from throughout the mesocorticostriatal circuitry that supports reward learning, to elucidate the computational role of each component of the circuit, their interactions, and how these components are affected by cocaine.

Wellcome Leap MCPsych project – Precision psychiatry for treatment selection in depression – The goal of this project is to develop a suite of behavioral tasks that can help predict treatment response for patients with depression focusing on cognitive behavioral therapy and/or pharmacotherapy. 

NIMH R01 – CRCNS US-Israel Research Proposal: Computational Phenotyping of Decision Making in Adolescent Psychopathology – The aim of this project is to characterize computationally and neurally the decision-making phenotype of adolescents, and to relate this phenotype to psychopathology. Collaborative proposal with co-Investigators: Catherine Hartley (NYU), Eran Eldar (Hebrew University), and Gal Shoval (Geha Mental Health Center and Tel Aviv University).

For the auditorily-inclined:

An informal podcast about what the lab does (starts around min 9)

Read more about us in the press: