I’ve been reading a bit lately about dopamine. [Check out The Willpower Instinct if you want to know what I'm reading.]
Wait! Come back. I promise this is interesting.
I’m not going to get all super-geeky and science-y on you here. I’m tempted, but the reality is that I was more of a Language Arts girl in school, so as much as I love the science, it may just come out as, “Oh! BRAINS DO KEWL STUFF!”
Back to dopamine.
Through various experiments over the years, some based on Pavlovian theory and involving cute little rats in top hats (no, they didn’t really have top hats, but I like to imagine them that way when I read about the experiments…like they’ve been invited to a special party), scientists have deemed dopamine to be responsible with craving, desire, and want.
The experiments advanced to people. Fun stuff where they’d watch their brains while they gave them something to do. Like, press a button and you might get a reward. They watched the dopamine response light up every time the person pressed the button. The brain did it’s little “Wooo! I be gettin’ paid!” dance every time the button was pushed, even if the person didn’t actually win anything. When the subject did actually win, the dopamine response stayed quiet.
So, this is all good, right? I mean, dopamine motivates us to do things. If I work hard on X, then Y will happen.
Well, here’s the thing about dopamine. It’s an attention hog. Once triggered, it hones in on what triggered it and wants to repeat the action. It keeps telling us, rewards are coming. Do it again. And again. Even if a reward never comes.
And it doesn’t do this only for things that benefit us.
Ever find yourself sitting at the computer and clicking on your email every time you hear that new message chime, even though you know it’s probably junk mail? Clicking over to Facebook every time a new notification pops up, even though it’s probably just that same friend playing Farmville again?
You’re chasing the promise of reward.
That’s why clothing retailers have scantily clad models on their walls – they are triggering your dopamine response. While you logically know that buying those $90 jeans isn’t going to improve your sex life, those half-naked images trick your brain into thinking that may just be your reward.
In a click-and-satisfy world inundated with marketing, our dopamine reaction gets triggered a LOT.
Obviously, dopamine has it’s place. The problem is that we can find ourselves confusing the promise of reward for happiness.
What’s that mean?
Ever find yourself craving a hot, juicy, cheeseburger? Oh, and with fries, crisp and salty and fresh from the deep fryer. And a huge cup of ice cold soda.
[If I just made you crave one, I apologize. Keep reading.]
How many times have you given in to that kind of craving? You head to your local fast food joint, wolf down those calorie-laden treats, and then, you’re ready to conquer the world!
Or more accurately, you pass out face down at your desk, groan about your stomach, and wonder how many minutes you have to spend on the elliptical to work off that lunch, a lunch that is bound to repeat on you in the middle of your presentation to the executives at the three o’ clock meeting.
You swear off giving in to your fast food cravings, only to find yourself shouting your order to the drive thru speaker a few days later.
Why? Did it deliver on everything you imagined the last time?
No. But that’s how that “promise of reward” works. We chase the “promise” even if it is never fulfilled.
This applies to a lot more than food and diet choices, but given my participation in #aHeartFitFriday, I thought a lot about this idea as I mindlessly reached into my pantry for a box of cookies. Why was I reaching for them?
But was I happy post-cookie? Not really. If anything, I had a bit of a sugar headache, and felt badly about the poor choice of snack.
So I started paying more attention this past week to what I was thinking (or not thinking) when I hit the fridge and pantry. I still allowed myself the occasional treat, but not before thinking it through. Do I really want this cookie? Why? Am I hungry? Looking for a happy fix? Can I fix either of these things without the cookie?
The results were interesting. I definitely ate far fewer cookies, encouraging myself to grab an apple if I was really that hungry, and finding something that would ACTUALLY make me happy if it was something else. (More on the happiness stuff next week.)
I’ll continue in the weeks ahead to focus more on things that bring actual happiness, not things that trick my brain into chasing a reward that may never come.
Because behavior changes are much longer lasting than any diet.
And…my official #aheartfitfriday update:
Weight: 181 lb
Given that I wasn’t super focused on my exercise routine this week, I am happy with the results. New goals for the week ahead. We’ll see how they turn out.
[For those that came to the blog yesterday for the Tell Me a Story series, apologies. This week has been much busier than anticipated, so I had to postpone. But that does mean you have a few more days to give your suggestions for where the story goes next!]