How are values computed in the brain? Rewards can be many things: the expectation when having just ordered your favorite dish; the child’s joy at Christmas Eve; the enjoyment of good music or the wonderful taste of strawberries. But how does the brain process these many different kinds of rewards? And what part of the brain controls these emotions? Does the emotional brain treat all types of rewards equally or does it distinguish between different kinds of rewards? 

Critically, these and related questions have long been asked in behavioral science and psychology. In the following post, we will see how there can be added value of a neuroscience approach to these quesitions.

Rewards can come in many different forms: from sex, social recognition, food when you’re hungry, or money. But it is still an open question whether the brain processes such rewards in different ways, or whether there is a “common currency” in the brain for all types of rewards.

A study on sex, money, and the brain

In a neuroscience study, Guillaume Sescousse and his colleagues in Lyon reported how the brain reacts differently to money and sex. A group of men was scanned with functional MRI. While being tested, subjects played a game in which they sometimes reviewed a reward. The reward could be money or it could be the sight of a lightly dressed woman. 

So there were two types of rewards. Money can be said to be an indirect reward, and the sexual images can be seen as more immediately rewarding (at least for most heterosexual men). But how did the brain process these rewards?

Regions of common activity

The researchers found that there were unique activations for both sex and money, but that there were also overlapping regions of activity. On one hand, for both types of reward was a general activation of what we often refer to as the brain’s reward system (ventral striatum, anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and midbrain; see figure 1). The brain thus uses some structures to respond to both types of reward.

There were also specific activations for erotic pictures and money. And this difference was primarily made in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, especially the orbitofrontal cortex (OfC). Here, it was found that monetary rewards engaged more anterior OfC regions, while erotic images activated more posterior OfC regions.

What it all means

This could suggest that the brain also treats the two types of reward differently. The crux of this paper, however, is how one explains the difference. As noted, the researchers used two different kinds of reward, but they differ in several ways which I will try to summarize here:

  • Direct vs indirect
    • Money is indirectly rewarding, because money can not be ‘consumed’ in itself. They are rewarding to the extent they could be exchanged for other things. Erotic images are in themselves directly rewarding. Not because they symbolize sex, or the possibility of sex, but because they have an immediate rewarding effects.
  • Abstraction level
    • Another option is to say that erotic pictures and money differ in their level of abstraction: Erotic images are concrete, while money is an abstract reward.
  • Time interval
    • A final possibility is that there are differences in the time interval: Erotic images are immediately rewarding, while the money can only be converted into real value after a while (for example, after scanning, or after a few days where you spend the money). We already know that the frontopolar regions of the brain is among the regions that are most developed in humans compared to other primates, and is linked to our unique ability to think about the future, i.e. prospective memory and planning, and through this to use complex abstractions for rewards, including money.
Regions of distinct activations: orange = monetary rewards, green = sexual rewards

The exact cause of this common currency as well as the separation between money and erotic pictures is still unclear and warrants further studies (which I am currently undertaking). The essential addition of this study is the separation between the posterior and anterior parts of the OFC in processing different kinds of rewards. By showing common and distinct regions, this study may resolve some of the ongoing debates in the decision neuroscience / neuroeconomic literature.

But as always found in science, this study generates more questions than it resolves, and we can only hope that future studies can add to this knowledge.

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