Resolutions and Your Reward System

by | Jan 5, 2021 | Blog | 0 comments

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Resolve to Reward Yourself

drawing of a woman holding a cookie showing that as a part of the reward systemIt’s a new year! Many people have expressed their general disdain for 2020, and for good reasons. We are all desperate to look forward to a new year. A new year brings hope for the future, and yes, new year’s resolutions. Those resolutions are goals in disguise. And the way to achieve them is to understand the connection between your brain’s reward system and goals.

But those resolutions, the ones that we are all gung-ho about, in the beginning, the results are less enthusiastic. Less than 8% of people accomplish their resolutions. I don’t think the low percentage of achievement is from a lack of trying or good intentions. I think it has to do with our reward system in our brain.

The what now, you ask? Honestly, I just thought of myself as I am researching the motivation behind why we do what we do. And on a selfish level, why do I do the things I do? What motivates me? And why? What drives us to act in specific ways? I had many ideas over the years. Is it nature or nurture? A combination of both nature and nurture? Something else? And how does my abusive early environment affect accomplishing goals?

Reward System

Two primary things will move us to act, one is the necessities of food, shelter, avoiding pain, and the other is rewards. Anything can be a reward if it motivates, causes us to learn, or elicits pleasurable feelings.1 If a reward can be any object, event, or activity, how do those things become embedded in our system to become a reward? 

And now we delve into the science bits. As the name would denote, the reward system is not just one area or structure in the brain. Still, multiple structures involved taking a neutral object, event, or activity and embedding it within our brains as rewarding. First, these brain structures need to be activated by what is called a rewarding or reinforcing stimulus.2 A reinforcing stimulus strengthens or weakens the behavior that produced it. 

A real-life example of this is when I took my dog, Emmie, to obedience classes. To get her to do something new, I had to give her many treats when she would exhibit the behavior that I was asking for. I was creating a reinforcing stimulus. I was making the association the behavior (her laying down) with food (rewarding stimulus). Her brain took that next step to create a more concrete connection between the behavior and the reward.

Intrepid Neurotransmitter: Dopamine

Our brains go through a very similar process. And yes, we use food too. The brain solidifiesdrawing of dopamine neurotransmitter as part of the reward system those connections between behavior and reward by communicating with the many structures of the brain associated with the reward system. This communication occurs with the neurotransmitter dopamine. 

Scientists have long since considered dopamine as the ‘pleasure’ neurotransmitter because scientists thought dopamine caused pleasure. And because of that oversimplification of dopamine’s role in the reward system, scientists blamed dopamine for causing addiction.3 If dopamine could talk, I think it would have told those earlier scientists not to shoot the messenger. Because that is all dopamine is, a messenger. 

Dopamine carries messages to the many structures of the brain associated with the reward system. By doing so, dopamine is associating with something that causes a neutral reaction to one that causes a pleasurable response. The brain is beginning to learn what things elicit pleasure. And dopamine carries those messages back and forth.  

Predicting Rewards

One of our brains’ unique aspects is our ability to think about and plan for the future. The structures in our brain that are associated with our reward system are no different. And dopamine plays a crucial role in that too. We learn whether or not something is a reward through the amount of dopamine that is released. 

Here is where it gets fascinating. More dopamine is released in our brains when something is more rewarding than expected. When you think about it, that makes sense. You are learning that X provides a bigger reward than previously thought. I think it is that process of readjusting the expectations of that connection between behavior and reward that causes higher dopamine concentrations.

The opposite is true; when the reward was less than expected, we need to decrease the relationship’s strength (decrease in dopamine levels) to forget the connection. And when a stimulus is rewarded as predicted, there is no change in the levels of dopamine. Therefore no learning has needed to occur. We use that information to determine what path to choose. Usually, it is one with a higher reward.

Reward System and Resolutions

What does that have to do with New Year’s resolutions and the low success rate? Or any goal that we set for ourselves that we don’t achieve? To answer that, let’s go back to the rewarding stimulus. Do you know that thing that strengthens or weakens the behavior that produced it? Yup, that thing. And remember that rewarding stimulus is needed to activate the reward system. 

I don’t think people, including myself, are not using the correct rewarding stimulus when they make those pesky new year’s resolutions. Without a reward that increases the dopamine levels, our brains will tell us to forget about whatever we thought we wanted to achieve. And then the whole process falls apart. 

I am still pondering what that means for me and how I can use that in my everyday life. I have read so many books on goal setting and achieving goals, but none talked about the neuroscience behind those goals. And then, there is the question about how does childhood abuse affects the reward system? You will have to read my next post to find out!

Sources Cited

  1. Brian Primer. (August 29, 2018). Motivation: Why You Do the Things You Do. Accessed December 30, 2020.
  2. Marc Dingman PhD. (January 16, 2015). Know Your Brain: Reward System. Accessed December 30, 2020.
  3. Marc Dingman PhD. (October 16, 2017). Sorting Out Dopamine’s Role in Reward. Accessed December 30, 2020.
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