Have you ever thought of why you had to check your email inbox all day long in anticipation of a message you aren’t expecting? Or why about 315 million adults are addicted to illicit drugs?
Well, for the most part, there is a great deal of congruency in the answers to the aforementioned questions – from behavioral addiction to drug addiction. Neuroscientists and Psychologists have nailed it down to a pleasure chemical called dopamine.
History, first. 1954.
James Olds and Peter Milner discovered that the stimulation (by electrical voltage) of certain regions of a mice brain gave rise to a ‘strange’ pleasure that galvanized an experimental mice to repeat the same action for hours – pressing the lever that actuates the stimulation.
This lead to the hypothesis that a reward system lurks in the shadows. And, indeed, further experiments with humans lead to the discovery of this reward system, and of course, dopamine.
Let’s imagine that you have promised yourself that you wouldn’t taste (talk less of eat) a big mac until you are ready to die. But something changed so fast when your friends came from Florida to visit, and ordered a heap of big macs. Fast forward 15 minutes, you somehow found yourself battling a mouth watering Double Quarter Pounder® with Cheese.
This gives me a framework to describe the reward system:
1. Receive a signal: Probably the smells from a steaming heap of bigmacs
2.Take an action: You versus a Double Quarter Pounder® with Cheese
3. Achieve your goal and get rewarded for it: That smashing pleasure on your taste buds.
And guess what? The cycle continues – creating a ‘compulsive loop’. Now that your friends are gone for good, you continued to indulge, and you are not, in anyway, ready to die.
The reward from this cycle of ‘bigmacs’ come in the form of chemical compounds like dopamine. When these reward compounds are released into the brain’s pleasure center, they make actions that trigger them, pleasurable, hence, increasing the probability of behavioral alterations in the future.
Now you might be able to guess while taking illicit drugs can be more addictive than actions like eating – the latter can release as much as 10 times dopamine compared to the former.
But does taking these actions really rewards us?
This was one of the themes in the book – Will Power Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University. She opined that the reward dopamine promises, or gives, is a false one, because after engaging in such actions, we do not really feel better about ourselves. In fact, in most cases it is in the contrary, especially if it’s a habit we are battling.
The reward system messes with our will power and explains while most of us struggle with will power challenges. And this is reflected in the fact that humans are not naturally wired to be successful.
Our brain cheats on us, no doubt, but understanding this simple idea that explains addiction can help increase our awareness, and break cycles of stinking habits.
But, it’s never easy.