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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New Comment
30 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:50 PM

Wow. This is god damn amazing.

You're starting to spoil us. I feel like reactions to a post like this should be like "Holy shit! Someone just sat down and summarized the 50+ most important research papers on an important FAI-related facet of human cognition! They probably had to read 250 papers they didn't even cite in order to produce this! OMFG this is amazing1!!!"

Instead, we're like. "Oh, lukeprog just wrote something."

I for one, continue to be impressed by your astounding summaries of scientific data on these topics. And even though I'm on a surf vacation in Bali, the neurons in my brain that code for the value of your upcoming meta-ethics series are firing faster than my neurons that code for the value of most everything else in my real life. That's pretty hard to do to me right now. Well done!

Yeah, seconded. Every time you post, instead of burning an hour in the comments, I burn three hours following links and reading abstracts on Google Reader. I feel like I'm building an 800 piece jigsaw in huge, 50-piece chunks.

Heh, thanks.

This post is too short for the amount of knowledge it seeks to refer. It does little more than list the references associated with terse and vague-to-the-reader hints about their topic and interrelation. It looks more like an obligatory survey section of a paper that ought to include a survey section to position itself in the context of a field and less like an introductory survey of survey articles that I expect it was intended as being.

I can only see it being useful for a reader who would follow it by digging into the referenced papers. A good cause, but it feels like there was more low-hanging fruit potential for exposition resulting from your study of these topics.

We may have different ideas about how much knowledge I'm trying to refer.

I'm not hoping that people come away from this article with a good understanding of how the primate brain calculates value and uses this data in decision-making. I'm merely hoping to explain that we do actually seem to be doing something like maximizing subjective expected utility - much to the surprise even of economists - and that neuroscientists know a great deal about how this works.

If you want the full story, you need to read a book. I've recommended several.

Winning at life means achieving your goals — that is, satisfying your desires. As such, it will help to understand how our desires work and how to satisfy them.

That sounds like the wirehead fallacy to me. You can't satisfy your desires to a greater degree just by causing yourself to feel like your desires have been satisfied to a greater degree, unless your desire happens to be a desire for your own feeling of desire satisfaction, which is not a given.

(Consider not just the example of someone who is explicitly an altruist, but also the example of someone who is explicitly an egoist because he only wants to do what is in some sense the right thing and mistakenly believes egoism rather than altruism to be in that sense the right thing.)

"Winning" has technical and everyday senses that often don't come apart but sometimes do; the simplest justification for the saying that "rationalists win" uses the technical sense, so it's worth being careful (more so than LW has been) when interpreting the saying in the everyday sense.

This paragraph jumped out at me as well. While neuroscience might refer to knowledge useful for figuring out the content of our goals, it's not at all clear in what way it can inform us. The simple "achieving your goals - that is, satisfying your desires" doesn't help, and is outright wrong in the context where "desires" refers to the technical sense from neuroscience.

"Winning" has technical and everyday senses that often don't come apart but sometimes do; the simplest justification for the saying that "rationalists win" uses the technical sense

(And is technically wrong even then.)

How so?

One way I can see to go wrong even with the technical sense of "winning" is if you're comparing a rational agent to an irrational agent who happens to start out with other, more important advantages. The right comparison is between rational and irrational versions of the same agent.

Please excerpt the caption along with the figure. A figure without a caption is like a map without an index and compass rose.

This serves as a great collection of references, but the post itself has too much opaque jargon to be a helpful explanation.

Looking back, I see that my post assumes a fair bit of familiarity with microeconomics. I don't have the space to give an economics lesson in this post, but I've noted this dependency in a parenthetical paragraph in the original post now, thanks.

As someone with a casual background in micro-economics, I find it entirely readable. I also really appreciated the warning that I might need that background.

Really? I didn't notice it was jargon-y at all...and I have zero background in economics.

In a post referencing a paper claiming "...orbitofrontal cortex and ventral tegmental area are necessary ..." in the title, I somehow doubt that the complaint was about economic jargon. But then I do have a background in economics.

I suppose that I do have some background in neuroscience (at least the basics covered in our mandatory Anatomy and Physiology courses). I don't know per se what the ventral tegmental area does, but I know it's a part of the brain and, well, I'm relying on the post/article to tell me what it does if that is relevant to the point.

Right. You don't need to know what the VTA does or even where it is to get the point that we have these functions mapped to very clusters of neurons.

Consider this, from The Neuroscience of Pleasure

3 Anticipation matters. Anticipating future pain is itself painful, and anticipating pleasure is itself pleasant. Spend more time reliving happy memories and anticipating future pleasures, and spend less time anticipating future pains. [emphasis mine]

and this

4 Your brain generates reward signals when experienced value surpasses forecasted value. 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.

How does one balance these recommendations? In my experience, when I anticipate future pleasures in cases where I am not certain of the outcome I tend to inadvertently boost my estimation of success or "get my hopes up". Is the solution to only actively anticipate pleasure when my estimation of the probability of success is high to begin with? This is not an easy thing to do, and in fact 4. in general seems difficult.

Good question! One way to achieve both things is to spend time anticipating relatively certain future pleasures and also lower your expectations concerning how future complex (and thus uncertain) events will play out.

Good point, but since an accurate model of the future is helpful, this may be a case where you should purchase your warm fuzzies separately.

(Since people tend to make overly optimistic plans, the two strategies might be similar in practice.)

I have found that this can be hacked in innumerable ways. The simplest one might be the lottery hack: imagine vividly awesome things that'd happen conditional on something nearly impossible happening, and just hide that impossibility from your brain, for example using scope sensitivity. What'd you do if a mayor banks computer got a random bitflip giving you 2^20 dollars? What'd you do if you suddenly transformed into a magical unicorn with a purple tentacle?

Thanks for all your hard work Luke.

Been following you for almost two years now, since your earlier days on CSA. I had a hunch you would be worth keeping an eye on, and look at you. And I'm sharing in all the benefits! Posts like this, are so well put-together, so accessible but so sophisticated and reliable. It's like an artform.

Keep it up. Your an inspiration.

Just as an FYI, you should probably tag this under "fun theory" and perhaps cross-reference it in the relevant main sequence.

I added a link at the top.

You might footnote the Allais Paradox footnote to Eliezer's three posts on the subject.

Done, thanks.

About the impressive-looking economy/psychology/neuroscience diagram: what would I need to do in order to understand all the displayed concepts and links between them, and what would the benefit be? It looks like some fun reading, if I had time to kill, but is there anything beyond that?

Also, I like this series of posts.

The best solution would be to read the book from which it comes, Glimcher (2010). There would be limited self-help applications, though.

A good example of the paradox between wanting and liking is tickling. People enjoy being tickled. BUT they don't want to be tickled (at least while they're being tickled). I wonder what neuroscience has to say about that.

This was really interesting, while I got a decent primer in behavioural economics at university, neuroeconomics was still too cutting edge.