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My current understanding is that subcortical structures in the limbic system determine what we desire, and that the prefrontal cortex is essentially an uncaring tool utilized by the limbic system to determine how to get what it wants. Whether we want to eat a cookie or become a billionaire, any action we take is ultimately driven by the limbic system's desire for reward. The prefrontal cortex may restrain the limbic system's immediate impulses in order to obtain greater reward in the future (delayed gratification), but the ultimate goal is still to satisfy the limbic system. This would imply that higher parts of the brain play no role in deciding what we want, they just model the world and determine the best way to get what the limbic system decides that it wants.

I have a feeling I'm misinterpreting or improperly extrapolating from what I've read, so I'm interested in feedback on this idea. In particular, is it really the case that the most rational parts of the brain ultimately have no ability to determine their own goals and desires? This seems to contradict our normal intuitions.

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  • $\begingroup$ @Michael Thanks for your comment! I haven't learned about that distinction, but it makes sense to me, as does your explanation. I am a bit confused though by your statement that the limbic system is the accelerator and the higher layers are the steering wheel. Wouldn't it be the other way around? I.e. the limbic system determines where you want to go, and the higher layers enable you to get there quickly/efficiently? Maybe I'm misinterpreting the analogy. $\endgroup$
    – dlee1828
    Jan 7 at 5:11
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that analogy is vague. Indeed the higher layers would also be the brakes. But the thing about instrumental goals is they are often indirect, in fact for humans very indirect at times. So the higher layers are basically saying "let's go on a detour" because no appropriate or wise direct path is known or available. $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Jan 7 at 5:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael Got it! Thank you so much. $\endgroup$
    – dlee1828
    Jan 7 at 5:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael - please don't answer questions in comments; comments are reserved to comments (clarifications, tips and tricks for OP to improve original post), answers are reserved for answers. If you don't feel up to answering, then please refrain from doing so, including in the comments. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Jan 10 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Psychology.SE. We work differently to many SE sites, where we have a strict policy that all questions should show evidence of prior research. Please help us to help you and edit your question to provide more information on what you have read on this subject, what made you ask this question, and any problems you are having understanding your research. If you found nothing, what did you Google? This helps to provide an answer which will be more helpful. $\endgroup$ Jan 13 at 6:05

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