The Neuroscience of Desire

We are what we want. Our personal desires are the result of our values, our needs, our aspirations, our cultural programming. What deeper insight could we have into the character of someone than understanding what they truly desire? 

Beyond our own individual bubbles, desire makes the economic and social world go round. It’s a subject worth understanding, with some of the greatest recent advances and perspectives coming from neuroscience. Looking beyond previous, over-hyped (and faintly ridiculous) claims that there was a neurological “buy button” that could be observed and triggered, what does modern neuroscience actually contribute to our understanding of desire?

Anyone scanning through articles about neuroscience will almost certainly have come across the iceberg analogy – pointing out that the vast majority of what goes on in our heads happens at a subconscious level; that much of what drives our behavior happens without us being consciously aware of it at all. Desire is no exception.

The chasm between desire forming in our brains and our ability to articulate that desire has three significant components. 

First, “we” (our brains, anyway) can often arrive at conclusions that “we” want something even before our conscious selves are yet aware of it. This is only one of the many neurological phenomena that raise the bigger question of who “we” really are. If our conscious selves only become aware of the feeling of desire after the event – after the “decision,” so to speak, has been made – then to what extent can our conscious self lay claim to the fundamental aspects of what we believe makes us, “us”?

Second, even when we become aware of our own desires, we often can’t identify what exactly is driving that response. It’s as if our brains have told us what the conclusion of all this processing is (“you do or don’t like X”) but doesn’t necessarily explain to us why we have arrived at that state.

Third, even if we are consciously aware of a state like desire, that response is often hard for us to articulate in meaningful – or truthful – ways. It’s in the right hemisphere of our brains, responsible for big-picture, holistic thinking, where many of our emotional responses take place. Yet, the right hemisphere has no speech capability. In order for us to express responses that are being experienced in the right brain, they have to be passed through to the left hemisphere, which houses our language capability. However, the left brain is responsible for more rational responses, and tends to put a rational spin on things. So, when using the medium of speech, either verbally or through writing, the rational left brain tends to dominate and we get a skewed picture of what is actually driving responses. 

As a result, conventional language-based inquiry may underplay or misinterpret the complex drivers of desire. While qualitative research techniques that extend beyond the traditional focus group have already made great strides in understanding and interpreting these drivers, a new frontier is being unveiled as advances in neuroscience-based research are providing new views into the mind.

In the last couple of decades, there have been significant advances in the understanding of basic brain function, enabling neuroscientists to map the functions of the brain with greater validity and insight. With these advances come an increasing body of evidence to show that the brain is highly specialized; that particular parts of the brain do very specific things. Neuroscientists are now starting to understand brain responses that take place subconsciously and, by plotting which parts of the brain are active while someone is exposed to a stimulus, can identify the cognitive processes taking place – getting insights into what people are thinking and feeling in ways that those same respondents are unlikely to even be aware of, let alone articulate.

Much of this mapping process has been done using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRi) machines, which are able to look deep into the brain. While these machines can give a highly detailed picture of responses throughout the whole brain, they aren’t well suited to commercial research; being slow, expensive, and with very low temporal resolution that can’t effectively measure fast changes in brain response. This means they find it difficult to pinpoint the connection between a particular stimulus and a particular neural response without deploying exceptionally controlled and “artificial” limitations. 

However, another methodology, Steady State topography (pioneered by Professor Richard Silberstein, and delivered by his company Neuro-Insight), is now enabling meaningful neuro-research to complement and enhance the process of marketing and innovation development. It measures rapidly changing responses second by second, and allows marketers to identify exactly what is triggering a particular brain response. This means people can look at a picture, watch a film, or listen to a spoken proposition, and it’s possible to see in real time what’s triggering particular types of brain response.

When it comes to desire, neuro-research does not yet have simple or standard metrics for observing, measuring, or understanding it. It would be false and over-simplistic to say that there is a single ‘desire’ area in the brain that we can just observe lighting up. Instead, there are a number of widely used measures that can help in starting to understand desire.

Typically, neuro-research looks at the strength and direction of emotional response, but this doesn’t necessarily equate to desire.

Strength of emotional response, or arousal, is a measure of excitation; it indicates that emotions are being triggered, but to say this is the same as triggering desire would be wrong. Even when measures of polarity of response can say whether a person is responding positively or negatively (not just strongly), it doesn’t necessarily convey what particular emotion is being experienced. 

However, there is a better neuroscience measure for desire, which involves the parietal region of the brain. Fascinatingly, rather than being a purely emotional center in the brain, it is associated with physical movement. But not just any movement; it indicates the desire to reach out to something in the visual field. If not the whole story, this provides a fairly good starting point.

To complement this, some neuro-research organizations also measure what the brain is (subconsciously) choosing to store away into memory. Because our brains are very selective, only a tiny amount of the stimulus that we are exposed to actually makes it into memory, and what tends to be stored away – or encoded – are things that our brains subconsciously decide are important and that we might want to act on later. Indeed, the neuro-measure of long-term memory encoding has been shown to be a better indicator of subsequent purchase behavior than any of the more traditional metrics.

So, to neuro-researchers, desire can be indicated by a combination of strong parietal responses: “That’s something I want to reach out to…” followed by “…and I might want to use what I’m experiencing to inform future actions.” 

When it comes to fundamental human emotions such as desire and the triggers that drive it, we have long had the ability to deepen our understanding though enquiry, conversation, and interpretation. Now, we can add to our arsenal the ability to observe and measure through the application of neuroscience. We can throw more light than ever on desire; we can even witness its genesis in the firing of neurons. But, the more questions we ask of this emotion, the more questions it poses back about the enigmatic connection between the physical matter of our brains, and the immaterial self.

Charles Andrew is the managing director of Idea Couture London. He is based in London, United Kingdom.

Photo: Akira Ohgaki

the author

Charles Andrew

Charles Andrew is a senior client partner at Idea Couture.