The case against economic values in the orbitofrontal cortex (or anywhere else in the brain)


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 covaries with subjective value as estimated in specific tasks and has led to the idea that the primary function of the orbitofrontal cortex is to compute and signal economic value. Here we consider an alternative: that economic value, in the cardinal, common-currency sense, is not represented in the brain and used for choice by default. This idea is motivated by 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, which proposes value-free process models for much if not all of choice. 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: direct learning of action policies. We delineate how this alternative can provide a robust account of behavior that concords with existing empirical data.


Last updated on 01/04/2021