In a 13 page, study, researched by Xinying Cai, Soyoun Kim and Daeyeol Lee, they have come to the conclusion (at least in monkeys) that immediate gratification may be one firing neuron away and can determine if we are genetically spenders or savers.

"Two monkeys (H and J) were trained to perform an intertemporal choice task, in which they chose between two different amounts of juice that is either available immediately or delayed. Both animals chose the small reward more often as the delay for the small and large reward decreased and increased, respectively, indicating that they integrated both reward magnitude and delay to determine their choice."
Essentially, they gave the monkeys different amounts of juice depending on how long they waited. The longer they waited, the more juice they got. Both H and J chose the small amount of juice more often as the delay time for the larger amount of juice took longer and longer (as one would assume for monkeys)
flickr/cc - Salim Virji
What they found through the research was that when the monkeys chose the immediate gratification a certain part of their brain fired and when they waited patiently for the larger amount of juice, a different part of their brain fired. But these two areas are connected by one specific neuron and the researchers were able to "listen to" that neuron to determine which direction it would fire.
"In the present study, the signals related to the temporally discounted value of reward developed in both divisions of the striatum before the animal’s choice was revealed, even though the outcome of the animal’s choice was already known. This suggests that striatal signals related to the value of chosen action might be an integral part of the action selection process rather than only contributing to the computation of reward prediction errors."
Basically they may not have the exact location in the brain for where we get our gambling problems, shopaholics or impulsive behaviour, but they are slowly mapping out the brain and starting to pinpoint which neurons seem to control what areas.

Let's consider a future where they have found that single neuron that fires much too often in one area of the brain and brings about the cause of their excessive spending or excessive saving.

Would we want a drug that helps loosen up the cheapskates to spend more or that tightens the purse-strings of those who can't stop buying electronic gadgets or shoes?

Could you imagine taking a yellow pill when you go shopping so you don't spend money and are able to keep your money in your pocket and just enjoy the window shopping? Or how about popping a green pill so that you lower your impulse behavior enough so that you don't feel like a wet blanket to others? Would companies pump out  brain altering chemicals in stores to get consumers to spend more?
Flickr/cc - Salim Virji
Obviously this sounds like a mad future world of science run amok and humans chemically induced. But in a way, that future is now. 

Companies spend oodles of money to determine what you will buy and why. They pay you and me to test out products and give reasons why we will or won't buy an item, including how that makes us feel. They spend money to get their food on the shelf at eye level because they know that a percentage of shoppers don't want to move their head up or down a half an inch looking for the less expensive products.

Who knows how this will play out and if there will ever be a way to map the brain in such a specific way. For now we can't blame a specific neuron and will have to continue to fight with ourselves and each other over clutching the money too tight or spending too much.


  1. Anonymous // Monday, January 17, 2011 11:35:00 AM  

    this is horrible-post a contact for these "doctors" so that we may protest another stupid experiment on animals to show how stupid people are.