Exploring the Brain Reward System


Do you know how the brain reward system works? This complex network of nerve cells and chemicals affects our wellbeing, motivating us to take pleasure in activities that provide benefits and reinforcing positive behaviors.

What is the Brain Reward System?

The brain reward system is a group of interconnected structures and neurons which are responsible for processing and reinforcing pleasurable sensory inputs. These pathways provide us with motivating rewards as part of our survival and become activated when we experience pleasurable sensations- like eating, drinking or other activities that benefit our wellbeing. As the cues associated with these reinforcements are learned and engrained over time, they help us develop healthy habits that improve our lives.

Rewards are an important driving force in animal behavior that guides choices, emotions and learning. Neuronal reward prediction error signals, which provide the foundation of reinforcement theory, can be used to study this phenomenon. It has been observed that dopamine neurons emit global reward signals to the striatum and frontal cortex while striatum, amygdala and frontal cortex neurons project specific signals to distinct populations of cells.

How Does It Affect Us?

Our brain reward systems are influenced by both internal and external stimuli. They can be powerfully impacted when it comes to addiction and substance abuse, as the pleasure experienced from these activities can become incredibly difficult to resist. On the positive side, however, reinforcing positive behaviour through healthy activities like exercise or spending time with friends or family can be especially beneficial for our overall wellbeing. By exploring how rewards work in our brains, we can better understand how to optimise them for improved mental health and wellbeing.

The Benefits of Exploring and Working With the Brain Reward System

Exploring and working with the brain reward system can provide many benefits. In particular, it can help to identify and manage damaging activity, while increasing engagement in healthier lifestyle behaviours that promote mental health and wellbeing. Areas such as addictive behaviour, stress management, wellbeing coaching, and positive psychology principles can all be positively influenced by understanding which activities stimulate our reward systems. Doing some research into this area could help you to better understand your own biases and preferences – enabling you to make more informed decisions about how best to optimise your life for improved wellbeing.

Uncovering Motivation Through Understanding the Brain Reward System

An important step in uncovering motivation is to understand the workings of the brain reward system, and how it drives our behaviour. This system works on a feedback loop that encourages ‘rewarding’ activity by stimulating key neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin. Knowing which activities stimulate this reward system can then be used to encourage positive lifestyle behaviour, while avoiding activities with potentially damaging consequences. Exploring how our brains are wired around rewards can help us identify triggers for desired behaviour more effectively.

Using Positive Reinforcement to Reap Even More Benefits

While understanding the workings of your brain reward system is a great way to identify potential triggers for rewarding behaviour, using positive reinforcement can unlock even more benefits. Positive reinforcement works by pairing desirable properties with an activity; making it much more likely that you will continue to engage in it. For example, if eating healthy foods is associated with feeling fitter and happier, it will become much easier for you to keep at it.

Rewards and learning

Rewards can have a major impact on learning. Classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian learning, demonstrates how animals can associate rarely occurring events with rewards. For example, in a famous experiment conducted by Pavlov and his dog, the animal developed an association between the ringing of a bell and the delivery of food. On the other hand, operant conditioning, or Thorndike’s Law of Effects, describes how animals learn by repeating actions associated with a reward. For instance, when Thorndike’s cat discovered that pressing a lever would deliver food, it continued to press it to get more rewards. Therefore, both Pavlovian and instrumental learning can help us understand how animals react to certain kinds of rewards.

Rewards often elicit positive emotions

Rewards often elicit powerful emotions. Pleasure stands out as the most frequent emotion conjured up by rewards, with enjoyment derived from everyday activities like eating, watching a movie, or socializing with friends and loved ones. This blissful feeling is usually temporary in nature, but it can open the door to longer-lasting states of happiness. The type of pleasure we experience differs depending on factors such as context and environment, and can come in various forms from the pleasure brought about by basic necessity (water for a thirsty person) all the way to massive wins in lottery tickets! Other activities such as sports, dating, and drug use can lead to profoundly different senses of pleasure which are rooted in varied qualities rather than degrees of intensity.