Separating Trash From Treasure: How the Brain Assigns Value to Objects

Summary: A new study from JHU researchers finds the brain can assign the value to an object in less than a tenth of a second; roughly the same amount of time as it takes to recognize an object.

Source: Johns Hopkins University.

Johns Hopkins neuroscientists have discovered how the brain can determine an object’s value almost as soon as we see it.

The team found the brain can begin processing value just 80 milliseconds after seeing something. That’s less than a tenth of a second—and means the brain is basically figuring out if something is quality or junk at the same time it recognizes what it is.

Having watched his wife shop, Ed Connor, the senior author of the research and director of the university’s Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, can appreciate the speed of value judgments.

“She’s flipping through the racks at Anthropologie at like two items per second and there’s an instant no, no, no, maybe, yes—try this on,” he says. “It’s an example of how all through life, we see things and attach value to them very quickly. With this study, we’ve answered how at the brain level this can be so fast and even automatic.”

The findings are published online today in Current Biology.

“At the same time we know it’s a car, we know it’s a cheap car, or a sports car, or an old car,” Connor said. “That has to rely on automatic and immediate value processing by the visual system.”

Past research has shown that value representation is strongly associated with later responses in the prefrontal cortex. The new findings show that value processing can begin in the visual cortex, before any value signals appear in the prefrontal cortex. The visual cortex is well equipped to discriminate the fine details in appearance that underlie value judgments about natural objects, Connor said.

The researchers trained monkeys to recognize four different letters. Each letter varied, as if seen in slightly different fonts. The exact shape indicated how much of a liquid treat the monkey would get. The monkeys became experts at choosing the more valuable of two letters in order to get a larger reward. Neural response measurements during this task revealed the rapid emergence of value-related signals in the visual cortex.

Study finds that while the brain is recognizing what an object is, it’s also assigning value to it almost simultaneously image is adapted from the Johns Hopkins news release.

As in the laboratory task, people become experts at perceiving fine variations that signify speed in a sports car, value in a luxury car, or high fashion in a dress or suit, Connor said. Knowing the value of cars and clothing may seem artificial, but for evolutionary purposes, Connor says being able to evaluate objects can be just as important as recognizing them.

For instance, if we meet a dog, we need to know right away if it’s a friendly dog, or a dangerous one, he says. Or when we meet people, it’s important to know if they’re male or female, old or young, hostile or friendly.

“Recognizing objects isn’t the whole story of vision,” Connor says. “We need to instantly evaluate and understand things in the world to form fast, appropriate behavioral responses. Seconds count when competing for food or evading predators.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Jill Rosen – Johns Hopkins University
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is adapted from the Johns Hopkins news release.
Original Research: Study will appear in Current Biology

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Johns Hopkins University “Separating Trash From Treasure: How the Brain Assigns Value to Objects.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 9 February 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Johns Hopkins University (2018, February 9). Separating Trash From Treasure: How the Brain Assigns Value to Objects. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved February 9, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Johns Hopkins University “Separating Trash From Treasure: How the Brain Assigns Value to Objects.” (accessed February 9, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]

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  1. Working in eCommerce, this has been known for some time. Photographs need to be clear of the object you are selling, you need to show the entire object and put its best side to the camera. It is that initial look prospective buyers will see which entices them to look (click) further. In other words, if you can’t show customers that the item is of value to them, then they are going to pass it up. Entrepreneurs understand we only have a few seconds of our audiences time when they are browsing be it smartphone or computer. This sounds like proof for that thinking.

  2. I can’t opine on the research but can on the article. Surely, the appropriate term would be ‘perceived’ value. For example, I was instantly interested in this article on reading the headline. However, on balance – which is the fruit of the intervention of reason following the read – I concluded that there was not much of value to be had. First value-judgements are ultimately and greatly influenced by culture and/or the perceiver’s space-time. If the researchers failed to consider this in their paper then the writer of the article ought to have drawn attention to such a failure.

  3. Very logical and most likely accurate. Many extrapolations could be researched and studied based on these findings. Think about how contemporary society selects friends and lovers. The challenge is for humans to educate themselves as to what true value/quality is, beyond the 80 millisecond window.

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