Addicted to reward? The power of dopamine and how we can retrain our brain!
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Our brain is our most valuable tool – and yet 21st century living seems intent on making it redundant. Most things arrive at the touch of a button – fast food, shopping, even potential relationships. Add to that the stress of working to pay for all of the above), competition and feelings of lack as we pursue the hedonistic treadmill in the chase for momentary pleasure – and it is no wonder our mental, emotional and physical health is suffering.
Modern day success
Add to this the broad stroke that we’re really no longer taught to seek lifelong fulfilment – but rather “success” set out by a defined set of criterion – namely what is “popular” or praised at the moment…or what our school wants us to achieve. There is little focus on building inner values in education – because it is “more important” to win, to have power, to succeed within a defined framework.
BUT, that framework is competitive, not everyone can win, and so often our efforts are not recognised until they place us at the top…or at the bottom!!
Thus – we have a perfect storm for addiction to reward.
The brain wants to feel comfortable – because discomfort can be interpreted as a threat. BUT the easiest form of comfort is stimulating the reward centre…the mesolimbic dopamine system.
It is known as the “natural reward system” – when we achieve something we produce more of it and it makes us feel good. The problem is, dopamine is not “discerning” with what it is stimulated by – time engaged in healthy relationships, achieving a long toiled for goal, learning something new can result in a “hit” in the very same way as the first bite of comfort food after a tough day, a notification on our phone which keeps us going to back to “check for more”, a “hook up”, or even stress, psychodrama and anger can stimulate this "reward centre" simply because that is what one has become used to and/or if it's about them, you're "safe"!
Recent research has suggested that dopamine, rather than being a "pleasure" centre, is more a "reward centre" (yes it gives us a sense of pleasure, but it's working out the behaviours that are "rewarding" and thus need to be repeated.
Thus, for example, an instantaneous reward of a video game level unlocked AND/OR even a purchase (shopping can give us a dopamine hit)…or more powerfully, both together – means the brain is stimulated, and wants more - and that is how we can get sucked in not just to one unhealthy (but rewarding) behaviour but TWO!!…Our task is to learn to make choices for long term fulfilment, rather than fleeting pleasure...and practice it enough to "rewire" our reward system.
So, what exactly is dopamine, and how does it affect the brain?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made by our bodies which sends (transmits) messages between nerve cells). It affects a number of physical functions including learning, motivation, focus, heart rate, sleep and plays a role in how we feel pleasure, think or find things interesting, and plan. Too little can be associated with health issues such as Parkinson's or ADHD, too much can cause some of the symptoms seen in schizophrenia.
The problem is, the “quick fix” is easy. And dopamine simply fires when a behaviour is rewarding, or successful. If that first taste of a guilty pleasure really is pleasurable…and perhaps we may even feel we deserve it...of it goes! However, dopamine is not long lasting…in the same way as the 3rd bowl of ice cream not only doesn’t taste as nice as the first, but is probably also making us feel a bit sick! ...yet we still seek that initial "hit". Once caught in a cycle of addiction, the brain is looking for it’s next “fix”, and we need to be very strong to “fight it”.
A further problem here is that we may not want to fight!! Life often places us in positions where we have to do things we don’t want to…and when a video game or similar pursuit gives us pleasure, we almost kid ourselves “I deserve this reward.”…we don’t think about a) if it is healthy long term; and b) if we have been manipulated into it.
How industries can manipulate us, if we're not careful eg: Social Media
The thing to remember in social media or even video games is that WE are the product (or at least our preferences, what we respond to, what we like is!), not the consumer. The client of the social media or the gaming site is the advertiser, and the key reason why social media/video games are set up in this way is to keep us online as long as possible*
- Watch The Social Dilemma for a full discussion (on Netflix)
As such, everything is set up to be “easy” for us to continue to be online. Social media/Video game programmers also use the principles of reinforcement to promote repeat behaviour eg:
- A reward means we will repeat a behaviour (so you get a happy sound when someone gives you a “like” or when you achieve a level)
- BUT rewards that are predictable can get “boring” (therefore sometimes if you play for x hours, or achieve x things…on a random basis, like a slot machine, you get an even bigger reward…again this keeps us coming back)
Then, because of the feeling of that initial high, the next time we are feeling low…or more and more habitually in the case of checking for notifications or achievement chasing, we almost “crave” the easy win.
In a game, levelling up, game wins and purchases, or simply "likes" on our social media become "achievements" which all trigger dopamine production. Because the body feels so (so) good at the moment of success, it then craves more and more – and so begins the hedonistic treadmill. In the same way as a drug addict may crave a chemically induced feeling of pleasure – the high-achiever is drawn to the next achievement – and the next in order to maintain that same sense of “happy”.
Unfortunately the feeling achieved by dopamine is not long lasting, and neither is it fulfilling – it “fizzles out” like a sparkler, whereas the sense of contentment found with oxytocin or the wellness sensed with serotonin is much longer lasting. It might not burn as brightly, but it definitely keeps you warm for longer.
While there is nothing wrong with goal achievement, it is important to be mindful of something known as “hedonic adaptation” – and that is, even without stimulating dopamine, we all tend to have a “set point” of happiness. Research has found that after a year people who won the lottery revert to the same “state” of happiness as they had before the win, and the same is true of people who suffered life changing accidents!! As such, dopamine really is only a short term hit.
Worse still, one of the original pieces of research which noted that dopamine stimulation resulted in a craving for more was not one where the “participant” mice were given a “treat” – but actually given a (minor) electric shock – such was the need for another dopamine hit that they kept going back for more – SO be discerning, especially with what gives you your sense of happy! We need to be strong enough to cultivate and nurture longer term happiness (ie. So we do not need the hit because we’re already “high”!)
BUT What’s wonderful is that our brains, when we learn to make them work for us can really help, because of a phenomenon called neuroplasticity – certain actions can affect the brain chemistry making healthy choices easier, the more we practise them.
How to seek pleasure in healthier ways:
This is where engaging other hormones and neurotransmitters can help us eg:
1. Getting out into the sun! Not only does this stimulate the natural production of vitamin D which boosts our immunes system, but serotonin and endorphins can also increase.
2. Exercise! This can release endocannabinoids, but also endorphins and dopamine - especially if you achieve your goals.
3. Laughing. Not only does this trigger a release of endorphins, but if you are having a giggle with friends, you'll elicit the bonding hormone (Oxytocin) too.
4. Stroking a pet. It's not only human hugs and affection that generates oxytocin, but our pets can stimulate it's production in us...and even benefit themselves!!
5. Meditation/Deep breathing. This produces GABA, and if you combine that with nature and sunlight, you'll get the extra boost of serotonin as well!
6. Roller coasters/"Extreme" Sports. If that's what you love - you'll benefit from epinephrine resulting in that sense of excitement. (And for the less adventurous, a horror movie might just do the trick!)
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt