Setting Up Your Reward System
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There is a place in our brain that seems to be primarily related to our experience of pleasure and reward, a cluster of neurons called the Nucleus Accumbens and its related midbrain circuits. Our pleasure seeking behaviors are to some extent genetically wired and, like the rest of our emotional centers, have much to do with survival. Food, sexuality, and thirst are a few “rewards” that we may strive for on a regular basis. Our brain and body have “plasticity.” This means that the interaction between genes and experience shapes our mnemonic associations. This is especially true of pleasure and reward.

Keeping our reward system balanced is essential to a good life. When this system is pushed to extremes addiction is often the result. Most of us know that addiction is a sled ride to misery. Recent research indicates that addiction to anything at all dysregulates our brain emotional neurotransmitters. This dysregulation appears to be permanent, even after addictive behavior is brought under control.

We know that the salience of memories seems to be more prominent with experiences that are associated with high arousal states. This codes the memory of an experience to be easily triggered along with the intense feelings. The disinhibition of getting high can be a dysregulation disaster. For people with a genetic addictive potential it may release aggression and establish a neural pathway that longs for repeated intense stimulation. If you have the right addictive genes this brain adaptation happens rather quickly. If not, the addictive adaptation will still occur, but simply takes more repetitions of use. In view of this, it makes sense that getting high on alcohol or drugs may later prove to have more drawing power than ordinary sensations.

A rat that is addicted with alcohol, cocaine or even electrical stimulation in this little cluster of pleasure neurons, the Nucleus Accumbens, will literally die for the pleasure sensation. Addicted people will behave similarly. Our neurological reward system is a powerful force. We must all know people who have abdicated life and attachment for addiction. Interestingly, addiction seems to be associated with a sensation of euphoria or numbing. Most of us do not have frequent episodes of euphoria in life. Normal, nonaddicted people may have “peak experiences” that punctuate life here and there, but unlike addicted people, euphoria is not a common event. Isn’t it strange that one may long to be “numb” while still have the possibility of life?

People who become addicted often have a sense of loss of control over their lives. Emotional dysregualtion can diminish our ability to establish our lives so that healthy pleasure, relationship and self-esteem flourish. In addiction risk and danger are quite easily ignored, many times leading to calamity. Addiction facilitates avoidance. Addicts ignore problems that may need to be brought to the table for action and remedy. This leads to frequent crises and relationship deterioration.

Two brief comments on our contemporary culture may be worth noting here. Notions of work in many of today’s cultures almost necessitate a workaholic lifestyle for success. We have a foolhardy insistence on unhealthy, out of balance, work schedules, especially for young professionals. Even Einstein needed eight hours of sleep for good thinking. A recent article in the New York Times discussed a study testing math graduate students after three days of 4 to 5 hours of sleep. They tested as dull normal in intellectual ability and made consistent errors in two- digit addition problems! Many of us, perhaps particularly our children, are over stimulated. Notice the movie previews next time you visit a theater. The level of rapid stimulation is exhausting. Over-stimulation in childhood is linked by some researchers to the very prevalent attention deficit disorders in our country today.

Remember that arousal states of any kind can reinforce an experience. We know that pain enhances attachment at critical development. (Some researchers have wondered if this is related to the chronic attachment disruption that we often see in abused children as they grow into adulthood. How many of us have seen people make poor relationship choices on a regular basis)?

In view of this, it is disconcerting to see the level of mayhem presented in children’s video games and movies. A new video game being marketed for 6-year-olds features spectacularly gruesome crashes depicting heads smashing through car windshields. This clearly establishes associations of reinforcement with violence.

Many of our reward associations are established in childhood, a time of critical brain programming. We absorb patterns as children, mostly without being aware. For example, if you have two obese parents, your chances of obesity are nearly 80%. Some percentage of that is undoubtedly accounted for genetically, but much is passed down by the child’s natural tendency to absorb the eating patterns of the adults around them. If family members tend to binge eat, one learns to imitate this habit. Negative experiences lead to brain changes that appear to be permanent. We know that stress negatively affects out brain systems. For instance, getting into a state of depression can be dangerous. Once a serious depression occurs, one is 50% more likely to have a second depression. After two episodes of depression, there is a 90% likelihood that it will reoccur.

When we are balanced we are more consciously aware of our priorities, concerns and those of the people that we love. When you are in the habit of living life so that your body and mind are rested, exercised, well fed, etc, you rather become used to feeling well and at the “top of your game”. When you get out of balance, you notice it. When you are habitually off balance in any kind of addiction or self-neglect, you also get used to it, and may not be aware that you are less than your best self.

If we understand this brain system, even on a cursory level, it seems that we could successfully set up routine and intentional life enhancing reward systems for ourselves. Daily life enhancing rituals may facilitate neurological habit patterns of regular happy reinforcement that can become commonplace for us. Positive experiences and emotions help us to transform distress and unhappiness. That is, positive experiences seem to deter the negative biochemical effects of stress and upset. They also facilitate a more rapid change from negative to positive feeling states.

Interestingly, brain researchers have pointed out that the muscles of our face have a feedback system to our brain. It seems that “putting on a happy face” has validity. It may fool our brains into thinking that we are happier than we may be. This isn’t to say, “just repress your upsets in life,” but along with the cognitive research, it indicates that saving upsets to sort out thoughtfully and constructively in therapy or with a confident- or even alone may be a good idea. Remember that your prefrontal cortex-a center of complex thinking- has a reciprocal and inhibiting effect on our emotions, tending to modulate emotional states. We can learn to think through feelings rather than snarl them out or act them out in some hurtful fashion. Cathartic kinds of therapy, i.e. rap groups, some stress debriefing techniques, anger release therapies, etc. appear now to be decidedly detrimental.

It is also true that emotion has a contagion effect with others. i.e., if one dog gets upset they all tend to get upset. It is well known that we “get what we give.” When we give a smile, we are much more likely to engender affability and good will from others, which is positive feedback and reward. The marriage researchers tell us that, more than any other emotion, contempt predicts divorce. Tolerance and conciliatory behavior, on the other hand, predict marital well- being. Remember that the contempt you may feel could have more to do with growing up with parents who exhibited contempt frequently than it may really have to do with your spouse or colleague or friend. We also absorb thinking patterns of the adults around us as children. Contemptuous humor seems to be characteristic of present day American society. It is quite likely that people are not aware of its potential negatively reinforcing effects on relationships. No one much likes a joke at his or her expense. Through therapy and other ways, it is possible to get into the habit of changing the way we think about others, in this case moving from contempt to tolerance and conciliation. In this manner we foster positive, rewarding relationships. Good relationships, by the way, also play a significant role in biochemical well being and emotional modulation.

The ability to regulate emotional states is affected not only by goals, but tends to improve with age. Human goals are set within a temporal context. As time is perceived as limited, goals become focused on the present. Having goals is good for emotional regulation. Long- term goals are particularly characteristic of younger people. Young adults increasingly prioritize relationships when they sense limitations on time; for example when there is war or impending death. Savoring relationships and positive experiences in the here and now becomes significant when one feels that time is short. When the future is constrained, the motivation to pursue long-range goals is reduced and attention to short-term goals is increased.

Habits of happiness will have major impact on the brain and body. That is precisely what we want to set up in our intentional reward system. Habits of positive reward that are regular and life enhancing will be sculpted to the idiosyncratic nature of our own life experience and neurological patterns. These are reflected in our typical daily behavior and feeling states.

Many good things in moderation are pleasurable. We know also that habits of health can become sources of pleasure. How many of us can be carried away by music, reading, gardening hobbies or exercise on a beautiful day. We can choose to focus on the attachment that we have, those sweet small moments and experiences that add to the quality of our lives. Indeed we can set up these moments to happen on a regular basis so as to insure a daily healthy portion of pleasure-one that makes life worth living. Kinder, gentler sorts of rewards can be deliberately established as reward patterns of thinking, emoting, relating, exercising, sleeping, eating and being in the world. Someone has said that a positive attitude makes a difficult time easier and that joy is a resilient choice. Indeed, brain researchers are giving us images and biochemical readouts that say that our choice of rewards and pleasure effect our neural pathway habits and our biochemistry…and, of course, the quality of our life experience.

- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist


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