The case against economic values in the brain

Abstract:

Much of traditional neuroeconomics proceeds from the hypothesis that value is reified in the brain, that is, that there are neurons or brain regions whose responses serve the discrete purpose of encoding value. This hypothesis is supported by the finding that the activity of many neurons and brain regions covaries with subjective value as estimated in specific tasks. Here we consider an alternative: that value is not represented in the brain. This idea is motivated by close consideration of the economic concept of value, which places important epistemic constraints on our ability to identify its neural basis. It is also motivated by the behavioral economics literature, especially work on heuristics. Finally, it is buoyed by recent neural and behavioral findings regarding how animals and humans learn to choose between options. In light of our hypothesis, we critically reevaluate putative neural evidence for the representation of value, and explore an alternative: that brains directly learn action policies. We delineate how this alternative can provide a robust account of behavior that concords with existing empirical data.

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