“….dopamine neurons appear to emit an alerting message about the surprising presence or absence of rewards. All responses to rewards and reward-predicting stimuli depend on event predictability. Dopamine neurons are activated by rewarding events that are better than predicted, remain uninfluenced by events that are as good as predicted, and are depressed by events that are worse than predicted.”


“…dopamine neurons appear to emit an alerting message about the surprising presence or absence of rewards. All responses to rewards and reward-predicting stimuli depend on event predictability. Dopamine neurons are activated by rewarding events that are better than predicted, remain uninfluenced by events that are as good as predicted, and are depressed by events that are worse than predicted.”

Predictive reward signal of dopamine neurons.

Schultz W. Institute of Physiology and Program in Neuroscience, University of Fribourg, CH-1700 Fribourg, Switzerland.


….midbrain dopamine systems are involved in processing reward information and learning approach behavior.  Most dopamine neurons show: Continue reading


Birdsong and Music Stimulate Same Brain Parts


Two studies on audio signaling thru birdsong songs and mating states:Birdsong study pecks theory that music is uniquely human

(Medical Xpress)—A bird listening to birdsong may experience some of the same emotions as a human listening to music, suggests a new study on white-throated sparrows, published in Frontiers of Evolutionary Neuroscience.

“We found that:

  • the same neural reward system is activated in female birds in the breeding state that are listening to male birdsong…For male birds listening to another male’s song, it was a different story: They had an amygdala response that looks similar to that of people when they hear discordant, unpleasant music.

The study, co-authored by Emory neuroscientist Donna Maney, is the first to compare neural responses of listeners in the long-standing debate over whether birdsong is music.

“Scientists since the time of Darwin have wondered whether birdsong and music may serve similar purposes, or have the same evolutionary precursors…But most attempts to compare the two have focused on the qualities of the sound themselves, such as melody and rhythm.”

“Birdsong is a signal…And the definition of a signal is that it elicits a response in the receiver. Previous studies hadn’t approached the question from that angle, and it’s an important one.”

During the non-breeding season, both sexes of sparrows use song to establish and maintain dominance in relationshipsDuring the breeding season, however, a male singing to a female is almost certainly courting her, while a male singing to another male is challenging an interloper.

For the females in the breeding state every region of the mesolimbic reward pathway that has been reported to respond to music in humans, and that has a clear avian counterpart, responded to the male birdsongFemales in the non-breeding state, however, did not show a heightened response.
And the testosterone-treated males listening to another male sing showed an amygdala response, which may correlate to the amygdala response typical of humans listening to the kind of music used in the scary scenes of horror movies.

“The neural response to birdsong appears to depend on social context, which can be the case with humans as well…Both birdsong and music elicit responses not only in brain regions associated directly with reward, but also in interconnected regions that are thought to regulate emotion. That suggests that they both may activate evolutionarily ancient mechanisms that are necessary for reproduction and survival.”

A major limitation of the study…is that many of the regions that respond to music in humans are cortical, and they do not have clear counterparts in birds.

Study #2:

Is that song sexy or just so-so?

A songbird study conducted by Emory University sheds new light on this question, showing that a change in hormone levels may alter the way we perceive social cues by altering a system of brain nuclei, common to all vertebrates, called the “social behavior network.”

“Social behaviors such as courtship, parenting and aggression depend primarily on two factors: a social signal to trigger the behavior, and a hormonal milieu that facilitates or permits it….Our results demonstrate a possible neural mechanism by which hormones may alter the processing of these signals and affect social decision-making.”

Across most of the network,

song-specific neural responses were higher in the “breeding” females than the “non-breeding” ones. But the effects of estrogen were not identical in every regionIf every node in the network just responded more in the presence of estrogen, then we’d conclude that estrogen acts as an on-off switchBut what we’re seeing is more complicated than that. Some activity goes up with estrogen, and some goes down. We are seeing how estrogen changes the big picture as the brain processes social information.”

The findings suggest that the perceived meaning of a stimulus may be related to the activity in the entire social behavior network, rather than a single region of the brain. “The same neural mechanism may be operating in humans,”

“In women, preferences for male faces, voices, body odors and behavior change over the course of the menstrual cycle as estrogen levels rise and fall. Our work with these songbirds shows a possible neural basis for those changes.”

How the Brain Handles Different Goals


The best-laid plans: How we update our goals based on new information

Princeton University researchers have identified mechanisms that govern how the brain incorporates information about new situations into our existing goals…. updating goals takes place in a region known as the prefrontal cortex, and appears to involve signals associated with the brain chemical dopamine. …”We have found a fundamental mechanism that contributes to the brain’s ability to concentrate on one task and then flexibly switch to another task,” Continue reading

Limits of Behavioral Approaches – Genetic Determinants of Smoking Behavior


It is a pleasant idea that simple “nudges” will have an effect on behavior.   If so, the truth appears to be — to a point.  In fact, all behavior is processed thru the brain and the brain is determined 200% by genetics — most of which are inherited and determined at birth.

Likely, this gene-policy dynamic applies to marketing and financial services.

Take Aways –

  • The study found biological evidence that may help explain why some people respond to anti-smoking inducements, such as higher taxes and the expansion of clean-air laws, and why others do not.
  • “We found that for people who are genetically predisposed to tobacco addiction, higher cigarette taxes were not enough to dissuade them from smoking,” Continue reading

Definition: Motivation


Business and marketers can now have direct, and immediate, access to the best work on motivation and “getting”/”seeking” behavior — how we all get paid.  It is complex but now we can discuss facts and avoid ideology, myths and opinions.

Of course, 99% of marketers and clients just want to do what makes them money today – that’s the priority for all animal brains.  But a (very) few will actually want to try to understand how some of this may work.  Here is a good basic definition – excerpted from a longer science paper.

In view of the fact that motivational stimuli usually are available at some physical or psychological distance from the organism, the only way to gain access to these stimuli is to engage in behavior that brings them closer, or makes their occurrence more likely.  This phase of motivated behavior often is referred to as ‘‘appetitive,’’ ‘‘preparatory,’’ ‘‘instrumental,’’

Perhaps the main utility of the construct of motivation is that it provides a convenient summary and organizational structure for observable features of behavior.  Generally speaking, the modern psychological construct of motivation refers to:

  • the behaviorally-relevant processes that enable organisms to regulate both their external and internal environment.
  • Behavior is directed toward or away from particular stimuli, as well as activities that involve interacting with those stimuli.
  • Organisms seek access to some stimulus conditions (i.e., food, water, sex) and avoid others (i.e., pain, discomfort), in both active and passive ways.
  • Moreover, motivated behavior typically takes place in phases.  The terminal stage of motivated behavior, which reflects the direct interaction with the goal stimulus, is commonly referred to as the consummatory phase.
  • The word ‘‘consummatory’’ does not refer to ‘‘consumption,’’ but instead to ‘‘consummation,’’ which means ‘‘to complete’’ or ‘‘to finish.’’

Thus, researchers sometimes distinguish between ‘‘taking’’ versus ‘‘seeking’’ of a natural stimulus such as food, or of a drug reinforcer; indeed, the term ‘‘drug-seeking behavior’’ has become a common phrase in the language of psychopharmacology.  As discussed below, this set of distinctions (e.g., instrumental versus consummatory or seeking versus taking) is important for understanding the effects of dopaminergic manipulations on motivation for natural stimuli such as food.In addition to ‘‘directional’’ aspects of motivation (i.e., that behavior is directed toward or away from stimuli), motivated behavior also is said to have ‘‘activational’’ aspects. 

  • Because organisms are usually separated from motivational stimuli by a long distance, or by various obstacles or response costs, engaging in instrumental behavior often involves work (e.g., foraging, maze running, lever pressing).
  • Animals must allocate considerable resources toward stimulus-seeking behavior, which therefore can be characterized by substantial effort, i.e., speed, persistence, and high levels of work output.
  • Although the exertion of this effort can at times be relatively brief (e.g., a predator pouncing upon its prey), under many circumstances it must be sustained over long periods of time.
  • Effort- related capabilities are highly adaptive, because in the natural environment survival can depend upon the extent to which an organism overcomes time- or work-related response costs.

For these reasons, behavioral activation has been considered a fundamental aspect of motivation for several decades.  Psychologists have long used the concepts of drive and incentive to emphasize the energizing effects of motivational conditions on measures of instrumental behavior, such as run speed in a maze.

  • Cofer and Appley suggested that there was an anticipation-invigoration mechanism that could be activated by conditioned stimuli, and which functioned to invigorate instrumental behavior
  • Scheduled noncontingent presentation of primary motivational stimuli such as food reinforcement pellets can induce various activities, including drinking, locomotion, and wheel-running
  • Several researchers have studied the impact of work requirements on the performance of instrumental tasks, which ultimately helped to lay the groundwork for the development of economic models of operant behavior.

Ethologists also have employed similar concepts. Foraging animals need to expend energy to gain access to food, water, or nesting material, and optimal foraging theory describes how the amount of effort or time expended to obtain these stimuli is an important determinant of choice behavior.

There is a considerable degree of conceptual overlap between motor control processes and activational aspects of motivation. For example, food deprivation can accelerate run speed in a maze.  Does this reflect conditions that are motivational, motoric, or some combination of the two?  Locomotor activity clearly is under the control of neural systems that regulate movement.  Nevertheless, locomotor activity in rodents also is very sensitive to the impact of motivational conditions such as novelty, food deprivation, or periodic presentation of small food pellets.  In addition, if an organism is presented with a work-related challenge during instrumental performance, it often responds to that challenge by exerting greater effort.

Although one can define motivation in terms that make it distinct from other constructs, it should be recognized that, in fully discussing either the behavioral characteristics or neural basis of motivation, one also should consider related functions. The brain does not have box-and-arrow diagrams or demarcations that neatly separate core psychological functions into discrete, non-overlapping neural systems. Thus, it is important to under- stand the relation between motivational processes and other functions such as homeostasis, allostasis, emotion, cognition, learning, reinforcement, sensation, and motor function

As stated above, organisms typically are separated from primary motivational stimuli or goals by obstacles or constraints. Another way of saying this is that the process of engaging in motivated behavior requires that organisms overcome the ‘‘psychological distance’’ between themselves and motivationally relevant stimuli.  The concept of psychological distance …In the present context, it is simply used as a general reference to the idea that objects or events are often not directly present or experienced, and therefore organisms are separated along multiple dimensions (e.g., physical distance, time, probability, instrumental requirements) from these objects or events.

In various ways, mesolimbic DA serves as a bridge that enables animals to traverse the psychological distance that separates them from goal objects or events… many of the functions in which accumbens DA has been implicated, including behavioral activation, exertion of effort during instrumental behavior, Pavlovian to instrumental transfer, responsiveness to conditioned stimuli, event prediction, flexible approach behavior, seeking, and energy expenditure and regulation, are all important for facilitating the ability of animals to overcome obstacles and, in a sense, transcend psychological distance.

Scientific Definitions: Motivation (Geeky Science Version – Dopamine)


Here is a good technical discussion on motivation

In view of the fact that motivational stimuli usually are available at some physical or psychological distance from the organism, the only way to gain access to these stimuli is to engage in behavior that brings them closer, or makes their occurrence more likely.  This phase of motivated behavior often is referred to as ‘‘appetitive,’’ ‘‘preparatory,’’ ‘‘instrumental,’’ Continue reading

Science Definitions: The Problem with Idea of “Reward”


Economists like the term “reward” – animals are not as simple as econ models propose, of course.

“..the term ‘‘reward’’ has been criticized in detail elsewhere. Though the term reward has meaning as a synonym for ‘‘reinforcer,’’ there is no consistent scientific meaning of ‘‘reward’’ when used to describe a neurobehavioral process;

  • some employ it as a synonym for ‘‘reinforcement,’’
  • while others use it to mean ‘‘primary motivation’’ or ‘‘appetite,’’ or as a thinly disguised synonym for ‘‘pleasure’’ or ‘‘hedonia’’.
  • In many cases, the word ‘‘reward’’ seems to be used as a general term that refers to all aspects of appetitive learning, motivation, and emotion, including both conditioned and unconditioned aspects;

this usage is so broad as to be essentially meaningless. One can argue that the overuse of the term ‘‘reward’’ is a source of tremendous confusion in this area. While one article may use reward to mean pleasure, another may employ the term to refer to reinforcement learning but not pleasure, and a third may be referring to appetitive motivation in a very general way. These are three very different meanings of the word, which obfuscates the discussion of the behavioral functions of mesolimbic DA. Moreover, labeling mesolimbic DA as a ‘‘reward system…”

  • ’’ serves to downplay its role in aversive motivation. Perhaps the biggest problem with the term ‘‘reward’’ is that it evokes the concept of pleasure or hedonia in many readers, even if this is unintended by the author.”