Medial prefrontal cortical activity reflects dynamic re-evaluation during voluntary persistence

Nat Neurosci. 2015 May;18(5):760-6. doi: 10.1038/nn.3994. Epub 2015 Apr 6.


Deciding how long to keep waiting for future rewards is a nontrivial problem, especially when the timing of rewards is uncertain. We carried out an experiment in which human decision makers waited for rewards in two environments in which reward-timing statistics favored either a greater or lesser degree of behavioral persistence. We found that decision makers adaptively calibrated their level of persistence for each environment. Functional neuroimaging revealed signals that evolved differently during physically identical delays in the two environments, consistent with a dynamic and context-sensitive reappraisal of subjective value. This effect was observed in a region of ventromedial prefrontal cortex that is sensitive to subjective value in other contexts, demonstrating continuity between valuation mechanisms involved in discrete choice and in temporally extended decisions analogous to foraging. Our findings support a model in which voluntary persistence emerges from dynamic cost/benefit evaluation rather than from a control process that overrides valuation mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Neuroimaging*
  • Games, Experimental
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Oximetry
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Reward
  • Time Factors
  • Volition / physiology*
  • Young Adult