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How the Brain Decides to Make an Effort

Summary: A new study sheds light on the neural mechanisms behind how we make effortful decisions.

Source: Emory Health Sciences.

From deciding to quit hitting the snooze button and get out of bed in the morning to opting to switch off the TV and prepare for sleep at night, the mind weighs the costs versus benefits of each choice we make. A new study reveals the mechanics of how the brain makes such effortful decisions, calculating whether it is worth expending effort in exchange for potential rewards.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published the findings by psychologists at Emory University.

“We showed that the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which was not previously thought to play a key role in effort-based choices, actually appears to be strongly involved in the formation of expectations underlying those choices,” says Emory psychologist Michael Treadway, senior author of the paper.

Treadway’s lab focuses on understanding the molecular and circuit-level mechanisms of psychiatric symptoms related to mood, anxiety and decision-making.

“Understanding how the brain works normally when deciding to expend effort provides a way to pinpoint what’s going on in disorders where motivation is reduced, such as depression and schizophrenia,” he says.

Previous research had observed three brain regions in decision-making; the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), the anterior insula (aI) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). Studies had pointed to the vmPFC as central to the computation of subjective value during probability decision-making. But prior evidence also suggested that when it comes to decisions about effort expenditure, those subjective value estimates were not computed by the vmPFC but by the other two brain regions.

A limitation to previous studies on effort-based choices is that they simultaneously presented the costs and benefits of a choice to experimental subjects.

“In the real world, however, we usually have to make decisions based on incomplete information,” says Amanda Arulpragasam, first author of the PNAS paper and a psychology PhD candidate in Treadway’s lab.

Arulpragasam designed a study that allowed the researchers to model distinct neural computations for effort and reward. Subjects underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while performing an effort-based decision-making task where the effort costs and rewards of a choice were presented separately over time.

The subjects could choose to make no effort and receive $1, or make some level of physical effort in exchange for monetary rewards of varying magnitude, up to $5.73. The physical effort involved rapid button pressing at varying percentages of each participant’s maximum button pressing rate. Participants were required to press the button using their non-dominant pinkie finger, making the task challenging enough to be unpleasant, although not painful.

In the effort-first trials, participants were shown a vertical bar representing the percentage of their maximum button pressing rate that would be required to do the task. They were then shown the size of the reward for performing the task. The reward-first trials presented the information in the opposite order.

After receiving both sets of information, participants were prompted to choose the no-effort option or the effort option.


The data also suggested that the dACC and aI are involved in encoding the difference between what participants were expecting and what they actually got, rather than effort-cost encoding. NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.

The experimental design allowed the researchers to tease apart the effects of recent choices on the formation of value expectations of future decisions.

The results revealed a clear role for the vmPFC in encoding an expected reward before all information had been revealed. The data also suggested that the dACC and aI are involved in encoding the difference between what participants were expecting and what they actually got, rather than effort-cost encoding.

“Some have argued that decisions about effort have a different neural circuitry than decisions about probability and risk,” Treadway says. “We’ve showed that all three brain regions come into play, just in a different way than was previously known.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Carol Clark – Emory Health Sciences
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Open access research for “Corticoinsular circuits encode subjective value expectation and violation for effortful goal-directed behavior” by Amanda R. Arulpragasam, Jessica A. Cooper, Makiah R. Nuutinen, and Michael T. Treadway in PNAS. Published May 14 2018.

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
Emory Health Sciences “How the Brain Decides to Make an Effort.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 15 May 2018.
Emory Health Sciences (2018, May 15). How the Brain Decides to Make an Effort. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved May 15, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/neurobiology-effort-9048/
Emory Health Sciences “How the Brain Decides to Make an Effort.” http://neurosciencenews.com/neurobiology-effort-9048/ (accessed May 15, 2018).


Corticoinsular circuits encode subjective value expectation and violation for effortful goal-directed behavior

We are presented with choices each day about how to invest our effort to achieve our goals. Critically, these decisions must frequently be made under conditions of incomplete information, where either the effort required or possible reward to be gained is uncertain. Such choices therefore require the development of potential value estimates to guide effortful goal-directed behavior. To date, however, the neural mechanisms for this expectation process are unknown. Here, we used computational fMRI during an effort-based decision-making task where trial-wise information about effort costs and reward magnitudes was presented separately over time, thereby allowing us to model distinct effort/reward computations as choice-relevant information unfolded. We found that ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) encoded expected subjective value. Further, activity in dorsal anterior cingulate (dACC) and anterior insula (aI) reflected both effort discounting as well as a subjective value prediction error signal derived from trial history. While prior studies have identified these regions as being involved in effort-based decision making, these data demonstrate their specific role in the formation and maintenance of subjective value estimates as relevant information becomes available.

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