The other day it dawned on me that most “self-help” articles have a lot of good advice about what to do in certain situations, but most of the time they never get to explaining the mechanisms behind our behaviours. The brain’s reward system is one of its oldest bits, and its therefore not something we have any control of on a conscious level.
A warning, though, It’s not something I know a whole lot about myself because I’ve avoided spending the energy and time on it, but I think knowing how the brain’s reward system works will be of great benefit to you for the rest of your life. Here’s a short introduction to the subject.
Basically, the reward system is responsible for driving our feelings of motivations, rewards and behaviour. You can say that it reinforces certain behaviour. The photo below (taken from Wikipedia) shows how the brain’s reward system releases (transmits rather) dopamine and other neurotransmitters (like endorphins and serotonin) between neurons when we engage in behaviors that we are evolved to respond positively to.
Drugs like cocaine, not being “natural” enforcers, will overstimulate the release of dopamine to an extreme degree, which quickly causes tolerance, and thus addiction. Basically, the same thing happens with food and sex etc., just on a level that the brain was better built to handle. Every time you engage in a behaviour that causes the release of dopamine the particular neural pathways associated with the behaviour will strengthen and you’ll crave that stimulation even more.
In modern society we’ve developed a lot of “enhanced” natural (and unnatural) enforcers that we should be aware of are hyperstimulating to our brain’s reward system. Take a cookie. You’d never find something as high on calories, fat, and sugar in the natural world as a cookie, and its therefore easier to become addicted to a cookie than to say a banana. You can say that our brain will make us crave the most the things that’ll stimulate the release of dopamine/other transmitters the most – and as an effect we crave the things that are less stimulating less.
And the brain doesn’t differentiate between something “natural” and something “unnatural”. This is why movies and television shows work and why (to be stereotypical) men might prefer action movies while women might be more inclined to like romantic comedies. It has a lot to do with our genetic programing (how we were wired from birth) but luckily also with which pathways we have strengthened ourselves during our life so far.
For example, computer gaming is an example of a hyperstimulant, which is why some of the most hardcore gamers might have difficulty with finding the outside world exciting. If such a person wants to be more outgoing and social he’ll have to quit his gaming habit. To begin with, stopping your compulsive behaviour completely is necessary since you will then regain your ability to find pleasure in other activities, but eventually you might be able to return to doing it on a more casual basis.
Similarly, we are programmed to seek out sexual activity, in the end, in order to reproduce. Of course, we are not consciously walking around thinking ‘oh, I really ought to reproduce’ but the neurotransmitters released during sex are rewards for engaging in sexual behaviour with that being the ultimate end on natures side of things.
Building on what I said about movies before, the brain doesn’t know the difference between the naked girl on your bed and the naked girl in the internet porn video. All it knows is that porn offers a great variety of naked women. During an hour on the internet you can see more naked women that your ancestor could in a lifetime. Porn, therefore, is another hyperstimulant, which is the reason why I decided to quit it entirely.
Gaming, porn, Facebook, the internet in general, sweets, and a bunch of other hyperstimulants will desensitize you to the otherwise great effects of more natural stimulants like bungee-jumping, socializing, sex, fruit etc. People are not on Facebook all day long because they are lonely, people are lonely because they are on Facebook all day long!
All of this is why I am cutting down on and quitting as many hyperstimulants as possible. If you quit eating cookies (and refined sugars in general) an apple will taste better; if you quit porn you’ll find yourself ten times more attracted to and motivated to approach the women in your surroundings; if you spend less time on Facebook, the internet, watching movies etc you’ll find yourself more inspired to go out and meet new people. And the list goes on with a bunch of other hyperstimulants.
Anyway, that is all for now. Look on this post as an introduction to the subject. I am going to write a lot more posts about it once I’ve researched it more thoroughly. I truly believe understanding the brain’s reward system is the best way to real and lasting changes. I hope you all have a good weekend!
While the above is about possible negative effects of hyperstimulants, I’d like to add that understanding the brain’s reward system, even a little bit, has also gotten me to ADD certain “hyperstimulants” to my life. For example, the Philips goLite stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter Serotonin, which is thought to be a general contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. Release of Serotonin is naturally stimulated by (sun)light but since the winters are long and dark where I live I could be in a lack of Serotonin during that time of year. The goLite is a little “sun” on your desk, and only 15-30 minutes a day has proved very beneficial to me. Anyway, just thought I’d add that there are also many POSITIVE hyperstimulants out there.