The Neuroscience of Desire

Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what any­one wants to do? How can you be sure about some­thing like that? Isn’t it all a ques­tion of brain chem­istry, sig­nals go­ing back and forth, elec­tri­cal en­ergy in the cor­tex? How do you know whether some­thing is re­ally what you want to do or just some kind of nerve im­pulse in the brain? Some minor lit­tle ac­tivity takes place some­where in this unim­por­tant place in one of the brain hemi­spheres and sud­denly I want to go to Mon­tana or I don’t want to go to Mon­tana.

- Don DeLillo, White Noise

Win­ning at life means achiev­ing your goals that is, satis­fy­ing your de­sires. As such, it will help to un­der­stand how our de­sires work. (I was tempted to ti­tle this ar­ti­cle The Hid­den Com­plex­ity of Wishes: Science Edi­tion!)

Pre­vi­ously, I in­tro­duced read­ers to the neu­ro­science of emo­tion (af­fec­tive neu­ro­science), and ex­plained that the re­ward sys­tem in the brain has three ma­jor com­po­nents: lik­ing, want­ing, and learn­ing. That post dis­cussed ‘lik­ing’ or plea­sure. To­day we dis­cuss ‘want­ing’ or de­sire.

The birth of neuroeconomics

Much work has been done on the af­fec­tive neu­ro­science of de­sire,1 but I am less in­ter­ested with de­sire as an emo­tion than I am with de­sire as a cause of de­ci­sions un­der un­cer­tainty. This lat­ter as­pect of de­sire is mostly stud­ied by neu­roe­co­nomics,2 not af­fec­tive neu­ro­science.

From about 1880-1960, neo­clas­si­cal eco­nomics pro­posed sim­ple, ax­io­matic mod­els of hu­man choice-mak­ing fo­cused on the idea that agents make ra­tio­nal de­ci­sions aimed at max­i­miz­ing ex­pected util­ity. In the 1950s and 60s, how­ever, economists dis­cov­ered some para­doxes of hu­man be­hav­ior that vi­o­lated the ax­ioms of these mod­els.3 In the 70s and 80s, psy­chol­ogy launched an even broader at­tack on these mod­els. For ex­am­ple, while economists as­sumed that choices among ob­jects should not de­pend on how they are de­scribed (‘de­scrip­tive in­var­i­ance’), psy­chol­o­gists dis­cov­ered pow­er­ful fram­ing effects.4

In re­sponse, the field of be­hav­ioral eco­nomics be­gan to offer mod­els of hu­man choice-mak­ing that fit the ex­per­i­men­tal data bet­ter than sim­ple mod­els of neo­clas­si­cal eco­nomics did.5 Be­hav­ioral economists of­ten pro­posed mod­els that could be thought of as in­for­ma­tion-pro­cess­ing al­gorithms, so neu­ro­scien­tists be­gan look­ing for ev­i­dence of these al­gorithms in the hu­man brain, and neu­roe­co­nomics was born.

(Warn­ing: the rest of this post as­sumes some fa­mil­iar­ity with microe­co­nomics.)

Valu­a­tion and choice in the brain

De­spite their differ­ences, mod­els of de­ci­sion-mak­ing from neo­clas­si­cal eco­nomics,6 be­hav­ioral eco­nomics,7 and even com­puter sci­ence8 share a com­mon con­clu­sion:

De­ci­sion mak­ers in­te­grate the var­i­ous di­men­sions of an op­tion into a sin­gle mea­sure of its idiosyn­cratic sub­jec­tive value and then choose the op­tion that is most valuable. Com­par­i­sons be­tween differ­ent kinds of op­tions rely on this ab­stract mea­sure of sub­jec­tive value, a kind of ‘com­mon cur­rency’ for choice. That hu­mans can in­fact com­pare ap­ples to or­anges when they buy fruit is ev­i­dence for this ab­stract com­mon scale.9

Though economists tend to claim only that agents act ‘as if’ they use the ax­ioms of eco­nomic the­ory to make de­ci­sions,10 there is now sur­pris­ing ev­i­dence that sub­jec­tive value and eco­nomic choice are en­coded by par­tic­u­lar neu­rons in the brain.11

More than a dozen stud­ies show that the sub­jec­tive util­ity of differ­ent goods or ac­tions are en­coded on a com­mon scale by the ven­tro­me­dial pre­frontal cor­tex and the stri­a­tum in pri­mates (in­clud­ing hu­mans),12 as is tem­po­ral dis­count­ing.13 More­over, the brain tracks fore­casted and ex­pe­rienced value, prob­a­bly for the pur­pose of learn­ing.14 Re­searchers have also shown how mod­u­la­tion of a com­mon value sig­nal could ac­count for loss aver­sion and am­bi­guity aver­sion,15 two psy­cholog­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies that had threat­ened stan­dard eco­nomic mod­els of de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Fi­nally, sub­jec­tive value is learned via iter­a­tive up­dat­ing (af­ter ex­pe­rience) in dopamin­er­gic neu­rons.16

Once a com­mon-cur­rency val­u­a­tion of goods and ac­tions has been performed, how is a choice made be­tween them? Ev­i­dence im­pli­cates (at least) the lat­eral pre­frontal and pari­etal cor­tex in a pro­cess that in­cludes neu­rons en­cod­ing prob­a­bil­is­tic rea­son­ing.17 In­ter­est­ingly, while val­u­a­tion struc­tures en­code ab­solute (and thus tran­si­tive) sub­jec­tive value, choice-mak­ing struc­tures “rescale these ab­solute val­ues so as to max­i­mize the differ­ences be­tween the available op­tions be­fore choice is at­tempted,”18 per­haps via a nor­mal­iza­tion mechanism like the one dis­cov­ered in the vi­sual cor­tex.19

Beyond these ba­sic con­clu­sions, many open ques­tions and con­tro­ver­sies re­main.20 The hottest de­bate to­day con­cerns whether differ­ent val­u­a­tion sys­tems en­code in­con­sis­tent val­ues for the same ac­tions (lead­ing to differ­ent con­clu­sions on which ac­tion to take),21 or whether differ­ent val­u­a­tion sys­tems con­tribute to the same fi­nal val­u­a­tion pro­cess (lead­ing to a sin­gle, un­am­bigu­ous con­clu­sion on which ac­tion to take).22 I think this race is too close to call, though I lean to­ward the lat­ter model due to the per­sua­sive case made for it by Glim­cher (2010).

De­spite these open ques­tions, 15 years of neu­roe­co­nomics re­search sug­gests an im­pres­sive re­duc­tion from eco­nomics to psy­chol­ogy to neu­ro­science may be pos­si­ble, re­sult­ing in some­thing like this23:


With this ba­sic frame­work in place, what can the neu­ro­science of de­sire tell us about how to win at life?

  1. Want­ing is differ­ent than lik­ing, and we don’t only want hap­piness or plea­sure.24 Thus, the perfect he­do­nist might not be fully satis­fied. Pay at­ten­tion to all your de­sires, not just your de­sires for plea­sure.

  2. In par­tic­u­lar, you should sub­ject your­self to novel and challeng­ing ac­tivi­ties reg­u­larly through­out your life. Do­ing so keeps your dopamine (mo­ti­va­tion) sys­tem flow­ing, be­cause novel and challeng­ing cir­cum­stances drive you to act and find solu­tions, which in turn leads to greater satis­fac­tion than do ‘lazy’ plea­sures like sleep­ing and eat­ing.25

  3. In par­tic­u­lar, do­ing novel and challeng­ing ac­tivi­ties with your sig­nifi­cant other will help you ex­pe­rience satis­fac­tion to­gether, and im­prove bond­ing and in­ti­macy.26

  4. Your brain gen­er­ates re­ward sig­nals when ex­pe­rienced value sur­passes fore­casted value.14 So: lower your ex­pec­ta­tions and your brain will be pleas­antly sur­prised when things go well. Things go­ing perfectly ac­cord­ing to plan is not the norm, so don’t treat it as if it is.

  5. Many of the neu­rons in­volved in val­u­a­tion and choice have stochas­tic fea­tures, mean­ing that when the sub­jec­tive util­ity of two or more op­tions are similar (rep­re­sented in the brain by neu­rons with similar firing rates), we some­times choose to do some­thing other than the ac­tion that has the most sub­jec­tive util­ity.27 In other words, we some­times fail to do what we most want to do, even if stan­dard bi­ases and faults (akra­sia, etc.) are con­sid­ered to be part of the val­u­a­tion equa­tion. So don’t beat your­self up if you have a hard time choos­ing be­tween op­tions of roughly equal sub­jec­tive util­ity, or if you feel you’ve cho­sen an op­tion that does not have the great­est sub­ject util­ity.

The neu­ro­science of de­sire is pro­gress­ing rapidly, and I have no doubt that we will know much more about it in an­other five years. In the mean­time, it has already pro­duced use­ful re­sults.

And the neu­ro­science of plea­sure and de­sire is not only rele­vant to self-help, of course. In later posts, I will ex­am­ine the im­pli­ca­tions of re­cent brain re­search for meta-ethics and for Friendly AI.


1 Ber­ridge (2007); Ley­ton (2009).

2 Good overviews of neu­roe­co­nomics in­clude: Glim­cher (2010, 2009); Glim­cher et al. (2008); Kable & Glim­cher (2009); Glim­cher & Rus­ti­chini (2004); Camerer et al (2005); San­fey et al (2006); Politser (2008); Mon­tague (2007). Berns (2005) is an overview from a self-help per­spec­tive.

3 Most fa­mously, the Allais Para­dox (Allais, 1953) and the Ells­berg para­dox (Ells­berg, 1961). Eliezer wrote three posts on the Allais para­dox.

4 Tver­sky & Kah­ne­man (1981).

5 The most fa­mous ex­am­ple is Prospect The­ory (Kah­ne­man & Tver­sky, 1979).

6 von Neu­mann & Mor­gen­stern (1944).

7 Kah­ne­man & Tver­sky (1979).

8 Sut­ton & Barto (1998).

9 Kable & Glim­cher (2009).

10 Fried­man (1953); Gul & Pe­sendorfer (2008).

11 Kable & Glim­cher (2009) is a good overview, as are sec­tions 2 and 3 of Glim­cher (2010).

12 Kable & Glim­cher (2009); Padoa-Schioppa & As­sad (2006, 2008); Taka­hashi et al. (2009); Lau & Glim­cher (2008); Same­jima et al. (2005); Plass­mann et al. (2007); Hare et al. (2008); Hare et al. (2009).

13 Kable & Glim­cher (2007); Louie & Glim­cher (2010).

14 Rut­ledge et al. (2010); Del­gado (2007); Knut­son & Cooper (2005); O’Do­herty (2004).

15 Fox & Poldrack (2008); Tom et al. (2007); Levy et al. (2007); Levy et al. (2010).

16 Niv & Mon­tague (2009); Schultz et al. (1997); Tobler et al. (2003, 2005); Waelti et al. (2001); Bayer & Glim­cher (2005); Fio­rillo et al. (2003, 2008); Kobayashi & Schultz (2008); Roesch et al. (2007); D’Ar­denne et al. (2008); Zaghloul et al. (2009); Pes­siglione e tal. (2006).

17 For tech­ni­cal rea­sons, most of this work has been done on the sac­cadic-con­trol sys­tem: Glim­cher & Sparks (1992); Basso & Wurtz (1998); Dor­ris & Munoz (1998); Platt & Glim­cher (1999); Yang & Shadlen (2007); Dor­ris & Glim­cher (2004); Su­grue et al. (2004); Shadlen & New­some (2001); Church­land et al. (2008); Ki­ani et al. (2008); Wang (2008); Kable & Glim­cher (2007); Yu & Dayan (2005). But Glim­cher (2010) pro­vides some rea­sons to think these re­sults will gen­er­al­ize.

18 Kable & Glim­cher (2009).

19 Heeger (1992).

20 See Kable & Glim­cher (2009), and the fi­nal chap­ter of Glim­cher (2010). Neu­roe­conomists are also be­gin­ning to model how game-the­o­retic calcu­la­tions oc­cur in the brain: Fehr & Camerer (2007); Lee (2008); Mon­tague & Lohrenz (2007); Singer & Fehr (2005).

21 Balleine et al. (2008); Bos­saerts et al. (2009); Daw et al. (2005); Dayan and Balleine (2002); Ran­gel et al. (2008).

22 Glim­cher (2009); Levy et al. (2010).

23 Figure 16.1 from Glim­cher (2010).

24 Smith et al. (2009).

25 Berns (2005) pro­vides a pop­u­lar-level overview of the ev­i­dence, here. Some of the rele­vant re­search pa­pers in­clude: Berns et al. (2001); Ben­jamin et al. (1996); Kem­per­mann et al. (1997).

26 Aron et al. (2000, 2003).

27 See chap­ters 9 and 10 of Glim­cher (2010).


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