Daily Bulletin


The Conversation

  • Written by James Kesby, Advance Queensland Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This is part of our series on Changing the Brain, about what’s happening in our brain in various mental states and how we can change it for the better and worse.

Every day we make a range of choices in the pursuit of pleasure: we do things that make us feel good or work in a specific job because it’s rewarding or pays well. These experiences help shape our perspectives on life and define our personality.

Consequently, problems with our ability to manage or maintain our pursuit of pleasure often lie at the root of many neuropsychiatric disorders such as addiction and depression.

What’s going on in the brain when we experience pleasure?

Pleasure itself – that good feeling you get in response to food, sex and drugs – is driven by the release of a range of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in many parts of the brain. But dopamine release in the brain’s reward system is particularly important. Dopamine release tells the brain when to expect something rewarding, modulates how rewarding it will be and drives us to seek rewarding things.

Read more: Mind-bending drugs and devices: can they make us smarter?

Dopamine is also important for a range of other functions such as voluntary movement and cognition. Disorders such as schizophrenia have too much dopamine release, which causes psychotic symptoms. In neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, the dopamine cells responsible for motor coordination die prematurely.

All drugs of abuse, no matter their primary mode of action, release dopamine in this system. Other rewarding experiences – sex, food, and gambling – are also associated with increases in dopamine release. Conversely, decreases in dopamine within reward systems are associated with depression, a lack of pleasure or motivation, and withdrawal.

We all experience pleasure differently as a result of individual differences in biology or neurochemistry, but also as a result of past experiences (no longer liking a food that previously made you sick), and differing social and cultural factors.

For example, musical preferences seem to be shaped more by upbringing than by biological factors. So while some may get a greater hit of dopamine from buying a new handbag, others may get it from placing a bet on a sports match.

how pleasure affects our brain Poker machines are designed to tap into our reward centres. krissia cruz unsplash

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

When we make decisions, some are habitual and less reliant on pleasure, and some are more goal-directed. Most of us would probably love to eat ice cream for lunch every day because it tastes good, and sugar releases dopamine in reward systems. But we know if we ate ice cream every day we would put on weight, become less healthy and feel worse because of it. This knowledge takes some of the pleasure out of it and makes us less likely to want ice cream all of the time.

The cognitive processes behind goal-directed behaviour involve determining the value of the potential outcomes and forming a strategy that maximises our ability to achieve the most valuable outcome. And if we make the same decision enough times and the outcomes stay the same, our decisions become less goal-directed and more habitual in nature.

Read more: We can change our brain and its ability to cope with disease with simple lifestyle choices

But certain choices do not always lead to a positive outcome. In these cases, over time we learn which outcome provides the best overall reward. We then guide our decisions towards this outcome, even if occasionally it does not result in a positive outcome.

Gambling is a good example of how this process can become problematic. Poker machines provide a positive outcome just often enough to keep you playing, even though they are programmed so that you lose money in the long run.

When decision-making goes wrong

Having issues at any point in the decision-making process can lead to pathological behaviour. Addiction is categorised by a single-minded focus on obtaining the next exposure or “hit” (be it drugs, a pokies win, sex). So much so the individual makes bad decisions in order to attain this particular outcome, even if they no longer find it that pleasurable.

We still know little of how addictive behaviours start and persist, but genetic and environmental factors can put someone at a greater risk. For example, finding a certain drug more pleasurable (due to differing drug metabolism or an increased dopamine response) places a greater value on its use, which can lead to continued consumption. This may become addictive if the behaviour becomes more habitual and less sensitive to bad outcomes and experiences.

Dopamine release is essential for the rewarding response we feel toward a particular outcome and inflating the “wanting” of that experience. Because this drives continued use, dopamine release in reward systems is important for the development of addictive behaviours.

However, by placing a much greater level of value on the outcome (so it appears the best option in nearly any comparison), and accelerating habit formation (so the negative consequences of this decision are ignored), the brain warps its own decision-making capabilities. At this point, attaining the outcome in question becomes less about dopamine release and more of a subconscious drive. Therefore, statements like “just stop using drugs or doing x” are of little use.

This is why multiple approaches are required to treat addictive behaviours. There is a quest to develop medications that adjust the neurochemical balance to weaken these habitual behaviours. Inevitably, these will require other interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy and social support networks to help retrain the brain and improve decision-making capabilities.

Authors: James Kesby, Advance Queensland Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

Read more http://theconversation.com/why-that-cigarette-chocolate-bar-or-new-handbag-feel-so-good-how-pleasure-affects-our-brain-91773

Writers Wanted

NZ election 2020: 5 experts on the final debate and the campaign's winners and losers ahead of the big decision

arrow_forward

Meet North Queensland First, the party that wants to kill crocs and form a new state

arrow_forward

3 Ways to Keep Your Business Safe with Roller Shutters

arrow_forward

The Conversation
INTERWEBS DIGITAL AGENCY

Politics

Prime Minister Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

KIERAN GILBERT: Kieran Gilbert here with you and the Prime Minister joins me. Prime Minister, thanks so much for your time.  PRIME MINISTER: G'day Kieran.  GILBERT: An assumption a vaccine is ...

Daily Bulletin - avatar Daily Bulletin

Did BLM Really Change the US Police Work?

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has proven that the power of the state rests in the hands of the people it governs. Following the death of 46-year-old black American George Floyd in a case of ...

a Guest Writer - avatar a Guest Writer

Scott Morrison: the right man at the right time

Australia is not at war with another nation or ideology in August 2020 but the nation is in conflict. There are serious threats from China and there are many challenges flowing from the pandemic tha...

Greg Rogers - avatar Greg Rogers

Business News

3 Ways to Keep Your Business Safe with Roller Shutters

If you operate your business in a neighbourhood or city that is not known for being a safe environment, it is not surprising if you often worry about the safety of your business establishments o...

News Co - avatar News Co

Expert Tips on How to Create a Digital Product to Sell on Your Blog

As the managing director of a growing talent agency, I use the company blog to not only promote my business but as a way to establish ourselves as an authority in our industry. You see, blogs a...

Adam Jacobs - avatar Adam Jacobs

How to Find A company with Tijuana manufacturing

If you have decided to launch a business in Tijuana, there is a need to know about the manufacturing companies. The decision to choose a manufacturing company is not so easy as it looks.   The rig...

News Company - avatar News Company



News Co Media Group

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion