What the brain finds rewarding

I find it interesting when the same action can be rewarding or induce tedium, in the same person. Obviously the consequences of action are often more rewarding than the action itself, I accept that. What I find interesting is when consequences are meaningless as well yet the action is still rewarding to the brain.

I’m thinking mostly of video games and I’ll use that example but I’ll think you can extrapolate it to a lot of other areas.

Imagine sitting in front of a blank screen pushing random buttons on the control. Imagine a scale and quantify how rewarding that is, how good and important it feels.

Imagine a game of pong with no opponent paddle. So it’s always your serve and it’s always a goal.

And imagine a modern first person shooter, all the graphics and sound, the intricate combinations of controls that are the difference between digital life and death.

Your brain will find one of these rewarding even though your body is doing the same thing in all cases. Yet there are very few arguments I’d entertain that say the game ‘matters’, that it’s consequences have good or bad value. The win or loss condition of a game doesn’t put food in your belly, a roof over your head, doesn’t give you practical social benefit, it’s just a story you are playing to tell yourself and you want that story to have a satisfying ending.

Anyone can enjoy games, it’s intrinsically human to enjoy games more than ‘work’ which is fascinating because games are basically work that explicitly doesn’t have consequences. Or in the case of gambling, it has negative consequences and occasional positive.

And it’s fascinating that you can trick people into learning things by framing information as a game yet if you promised them the same result by reading a text book you’d have extremely few volunteers and few of them would complete the reading and even fewer would retain and utilize what was read.

The reason history is told in terms of individuals is that the brain remembers things about people, remembers stories, empathizes. People remember their impressions of wars and culture much more surely than they remember information such as dates and geography.

The other thing that’s interesting is the die-off effect. That learning something stops being rewarding even as you continue to develop.

Brian Jones syndrome is the name for musicians who pick up an instrument, enjoy the early period where you go from total ignorance to some skill and knowledge, then move on to enjoy that beginner period again with a different instrument. Just because the reward center of the brain thinks your moving the chains a lot even though practically you’re moving on different fields and not really getting closer to the ends zone.

People who get ahead are the people who can ride through the slow down period after the first upward rush.

There are so many things the brain finds rewarding that we know are bad for us and what I find really interesting is the experiencing-self and the remembering-self are so different that we can engage something for ours, with our reward system pushing us on, and then the minute we stop realize it was a devastating waste of time.

In the modern world our reward system gets tricked more than it gets utilized. Porn, fast food laden with dangerous amounts of sugar and salt, video games, television, the internet… and represent other people deliberately exploiting our brains to keep us doing an activity that doesn’t benefit out body or mind. Although I should back off on video games because complex quick paced games are good for mental reflexes and a good RPG is probably as rewarding as reading a novel. What I really mean are silly, easy, time wasting games. Especially if there’s micro-payments or DLC involved.

And we can’t forget drugs. Drugs, including my beloved caffeine, are a cheat for tripping your reward centers without accomplishing anything.

I’d say in modern times the reward centers are a bug not a feature of our human software. We have to ignore their arithmetic that tantalizing yet toxic foods are better than eating healthy because that part of your brain doesn’t care that you’re going to get fatty liver disease, it just wants to get the most whatever it can get.

We have to slow down and trust our prefrontal cortex, think ahead, think way ahead, and let the reward center catch up to that.

Because sticking with a diet does become extremely satisfying and you won’t notice when it happens, there’s no light show in your brain, you just become aware that your hungry and realize you’d prefer some avocado – which you used to hate – and as you build good habits the need for will power melts away and you’ve truly changed your life. But the experiencing-self doesn’t notice much while it’s happening, the remembering-self looks back at all accomplished in a year and then you get the long lasting satisfying brain drugs of life.


Singer/songwriter, jerk.

Posted in Pragmatism
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