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.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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