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Annu Rev Neurosci. 2017 Jul 25;40:99-124. doi: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-072116-031526. Epub 2017 Mar 31.

Toward a Rational and Mechanistic Account of Mental Effort.

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Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912; email:
Brown Institute for Brain Science, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912.
Princeton Neuroscience Institute, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544.
Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720.
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138.
Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720.
Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08540.
Google DeepMind, London M1C 4AG, United Kingdom.
Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit, University College London, London W1T 4JG, United Kingdom.


In spite of its familiar phenomenology, the mechanistic basis for mental effort remains poorly understood. Although most researchers agree that mental effort is aversive and stems from limitations in our capacity to exercise cognitive control, it is unclear what gives rise to those limitations and why they result in an experience of control as costly. The presence of these control costs also raises further questions regarding how best to allocate mental effort to minimize those costs and maximize the attendant benefits. This review explores recent advances in computational modeling and empirical research aimed at addressing these questions at the level of psychological process and neural mechanism, examining both the limitations to mental effort exertion and how we manage those limited cognitive resources. We conclude by identifying remaining challenges for theoretical accounts of mental effort as well as possible applications of the available findings to understanding the causes of and potential solutions for apparent failures to exert the mental effort required of us.


cognitive control; decision making; executive function; motivation; prefrontal cortex; reward

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