Rewards and punishments, goal-directed behavior and consciousness

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2004 Mar;28(1):27-39. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2003.10.003.


A parsimonious account of consciousness is given in which it emerges as a direct consequence of basic neural processes without the necessity of any higher order system. In this model, pleasant or unpleasant conscious feelings of various stimuli in the environment stem from their higher order associations to innate rewards or punishments. When a conditioned stimulus (CS) is associated with a reward, it acquires pleasant feelings due to the temporal correlation of the activations representing its sensory features with those representing innate visceral reward acquisition processes. When the CS is associated with the punishment, it acquires unpleasant feelings due to the correlation of its sensory features with the innate visceral inhibition of punishment acquisition processes. The correlations involve coherent activity between the sensory cortex, the limbic system, the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex, and more lateral prefrontal areas where stimuli can be incorporated into working memory. A conscious act involves responses (or attempts to improve the environment) made on the basis of the feelings of such stimuli. Covert memory scans, in which comparisons are made of the reward and punishment associations of the outcomes of previous responses, are related to the motivations and attention behind the conscious selection of a current response. This model appears to fit together various empirical observations. Its relations to some higher or more abstract mental processes, and some evolutionary implications are discussed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Consciousness / physiology*
  • Goals*
  • Motivation
  • Neuropsychology
  • Punishment*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*