Meditation and Reward Circuitry


Picture Credits: Trevor Haynes

Upon investigating various human behavior and evolutionary predispositions, we come to the conclusion that life is sustained by a goal-oriented paradigm. This goal-oriented paradigm is reinforced by external rewards that are internalized by our brain through its reward circuitry. In fact, if there is anything worth studying to understand the basic principle of behaviorism, it would be to examine how our brains systematize behaviors based on the number of rewards we gain. Many neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers have studied the topic of motivation and come up with the major theory of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Our intrinsic motivation is governed by non-material gains such as fame, reputation, honor, and an internal sense of well-being. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is governed by material things such as getting a grade for an assignment, receiving weekly paychecks for work, or in general gaining money/ products in exchange for given services. The current day model of life is oriented in a way that promotes extrinsic motivation more than an intrinsic one. We live in a consumeristic society and our brains are constantly looking to gratify themselves with newer objects in exchange for the work we have to do. But, extrinsic motivation only lasts for a while before we need a new object in mind. Therefore, from a purely psychological point of view, it is better to have an intrinsic drive to do things as it lasts longer and is healthier for individuals.

It may be useful to read my blog on Notes on Habits by William James, where I dive deeper into this topic of building habits and cultivating good motivation. In the first part, I dissect what habits are and why they are so useful for humans, and in the second part, I provide practical ways of building good habits and suggest ways in which people can live healthier lives. This blog post, on the other hand, is more focused on the reward-seeking behavior that precedes these very habits. The links to these readings are below

Notes on Habits by William James Part 1

Notes on Habits by William James Part 2

Hedonic Pleasure Principle

One of the foundation principles of human behavior is the pleasure principle, commonly referred to as the hedonic principle. From birth, we are inclined to seek pleasant things that by nature induce positive chemical changes in our brains, while avoiding unpleasant things that do the opposite. Some say that this is an innate requirement for babies to survive and learn the behaviors that allow them to survive and reproduce. Infants are born with very small brains, and there is no physical or intellectual capacity to survive for them in this world. Therefore, neuroplasticity in the first couple of years of birth is very important for these children. The pleasure principle suggests that providing this influx of chemical rush in the brain after performing a behavior that promotes safety and comfort leads to healthier communities. Think about it this way, if your brain had no way of distinguishing pleasure and pain, death wouldn't mean anything. Any species that devalues its own demise is bound to go extinct within ages. But we can be certain that since our species has risen to the top of the hierarchy, it must have deeply valued its own existence and its mechanism of learning is pre-built by birth. We can thus say that all fears of life, perhaps all unpleasant feelings come from innate aversion to death. This is applicable to all of our ancestors and is a principle of life that is required for the safety of our species. This innate aversion to death manifests itself in our brain's reward system through the autonomic pathways. Some of the pathways to death include isolation, disease, the unknown, suffocation, sudden movement external to oneself, falling, and in general incapacitation. Associative learning takes these categories and appropriates them to our daily life. We become aversive to stimuli that are even indirectly related to one of these criteria. On the other hand, we are rewarded with dopamine, the uplifting and motivating neurotransmitter, when we avoid these things. The basic principle is that loss of aversion is pleasure, and humans actually prefer the loss of aversion more than the satisfaction of a pleasurable thing. The error in this system is that our dopamine pathways don't have a proper guideline to prioritize dopamine output. The only positive feedback system comes from how much dopamine is already released. Activities such as video games, movies, pornography, gambling, and addictive drugs all use this positive mechanism to elicit the feeling of pleasure. These behaviors aren't necessarily tied to our well-being, in fact, they may actually be dangerous. But they still provide pleasure because we anticipate relief in the process. Before a behavior is exhibited, there is goal orientation, reward appraisal and finally reward seeking. This pre-reward process itself starts releasing dopamine to motivate our bodies to pursue the action and drive towards the goal. Thus, we can state that pleasure, at least at a physiological level, comes from anticipating a reward rather than actually consuming/ receiving the reward. We are driven to seek pleasures and continue reinforcing the habit of seeking them because of how pleasurable the process is. But it is the relief from wanting something, that truly makes us satisfied. The relief of thirst for more, or the relief of finally getting the reward and no longer having to work for it is the true moment of satisfaction. The excitement and joy that occurs prior to this is only a way to reinforce the behavior and make it addictive.

Reward System of the Brain

I will try my best to explain how our brains process rewards and interpret their value of them. I am not an expert in this field, and neurobiologists are still trying to find ways to study this topic. After hours of research and reading, I have tried to summarize the best findings below. This comes from experimental trials and not just neurobiological theory. Of course, as with other scientific findings, our knowledge of the brain is still advancing so this model may be outdated in a couple of years. Nonetheless, it gives us a foundation to look at how our bodies and brains drive themselves in response to their reward circuitry.

It all starts with boredom and dissatisfaction in life. When our brains become habituated to mundane tasks and find no motivation in doing the same things again and again, we look to new objects or activities that may elicit pleasure. When we expose our brains to one the innate pleasures such as high-calorie food, or sex we associate those behaviors with other ones such as social gatherings, parties, sleepovers, and campfires. In this way, our innate pleasures dissociate with more situations, and our brains start to anticipate pleasure when we get in those situations. Over time, when we expose ourselves to enough episodes of a situation that eventually leads to a pleasurable activity, we start to release dopamine in anticipation of that situation. Feelings of comfort and warmth overflow us as we fantasize about the situation and plan to approach it. The reward anticipation activates the neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the brain, located in the midbrain. The midbrain is highly responsible for other survival behaviors such as breathing, circulation, and digestion, so it is only natural that this is where the reward system starts. The ventral tegmental area has neurons that fire more rapidly as the anticipation of pleasure is matched with the actual pleasure output in real life. As these neurons fire, they release dopamine in their synapses, which in turn has a positive reinforcement effect on the ventral tegmental area. The neurons travel to the nucleus accumbens at the anterior cingulate gyrus, where we find the largest amount of dopamine receptors throughout the brain. The natural mechanism of dopamine is still uncertain, but we think that as more receptors attach to dopamine, there is a positive cycle of sending more neurons from the ventral tegmental region. However, when a certain threshold reaches, such as one at peak of orgasm or at satiety of a dessert, the cognitive areas start to downregulate dopamine pathways. The ventral tegmental pathways are deep within the brain, and they are driven to drive pleasure, however, too much pleasure can actually paralyze our body and lead to desensitization and depression. Therefore, higher regions of the brain such as the frontal lobes, mainly the prefrontal cortex are activated to inhibit the dopamine system. The ventral tegmental area projects its neurons to the prefrontal cortex which in turn releases GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter to suppress the dopamine effect. The balance of our prefrontal cortex and nucleus accembens eventually desensitizes pleasure and leads to equilibrium. It is important to note that dopamine itself is not associated with pleasure, but rather the anticipation of it. Dopamine, in the context of the nucleus accembens, is responsible for reward appraisal and reward seeking. In other contexts, it is used for movement, planning, and decision-making. The story here is that we need neurotransmitters such as dopamine to reinforce behaviors and systematize our priorities. But too much dopamine in our brain can desensitize our reward pathways and lead to demotivation.

Instant Gratification and Addiction

Besides evolutionary purposes, another predictor of our rewarding behavior is how fast the reward is gained after the anticipation. This is well aligned with the operant conditioning model of learning. Behavior is learned and associated much faster if the reinforcement interval is short and consistent. However, this also means there are withdrawal systems mainly through tantrums when a reward is withdrawn from the environment. Therefore a random but occasional placement of reward in response to behavior is the best way of learning as well as maintaining the learned behavior in absence of the reward. Instant gratification is termed as the tendency to seek short-term rewards regardless of their long-term losses. This is somewhat contradictory to the evolutionary theory as it emphasizes more on actualizing the current moment rather than rationalizing it for future benefit. It has its own spiritual implications such as 'be in the present moment and 'live the best of life now' and so forth, but it also leads to long-term deficits in cognition, emotion regulation, and memory. As stated earlier, instant gratification leads to greater levels of stress, through tantrums when the reward is removed. Think of it in this way: the dopamine is released each time you anticipate a pleasurable feeling, but over time that anticipation becomes so frequent that you no longer need the dopamine to signal. Furthermore, chronic dopamine receptivity actually leads to a reduced effect in the feeling of satisfaction, it simply leads to reinforcing a given behavior. At last, an addictive behavior becomes so important that even if it doesn't elicit joy or pleasure, it is required to maintain normal functioning.

When we indulge ourselves in drugs, mainly stimulants such as nicotine or heroin, we alter the brain's reward priority. This phenomenon is known as the reward learning theory. It states that our brains have an internal priority of things based on how much dopamine each of them releases. From birth, our basic necessities take priority over other things. Our bodies are constantly in search of homeostatic levels, where our needs are met and we are content with the present moment. When our needs aren't met, our hormones become imbalanced, and this is correlated with reward-seeking in order to find that equilibrium state. However, learned behaviors can actually overtake these evolutionary predispositions of homeostasis if they are practiced at an unhealthy level. Researchers have seen that rats who were given a choice of a lever that stimulated dopamine neurons in the brain or daily food and water ended up choosing the lever over the food. The scientists were surprised to notice that the rats kept pressing the lever over and over again until they died. This phenomenon was studied in another lab where rats were given sexual mates. The rats would have sex with their mate and become tired and fall asleep. However, as soon as a new mate was replaced with the older one, the rats would become excited and perform sex once more. The rats continued to do this again and again until they were incapable or completely sick. Both of these studies showcase the incredible power of our reward system. We would rather risk our health than give up the short pleasure experience. In part, this also describes the notion of reward desensitivity. When our goal orientation and reward anticipation are very high, but the actual output of pleasure is low, this leads to cognitive dissonance and pushes us to try again to reach than anticipated output. This describes the feeling that most addicts have, who are in search of their 'first high.' No matter how much they smoke, they just can't get the same effect they had the first time, and this very fact promotes them to keep smoking and keep looking for it.

The priority levels change as we expose ourselves to different things, and over time, our brains learn to give up some of the essential behaviors for these more rewarding ones. This is not just a fault of the system that misinterprets dopamine transmission as survival relief, but also a fault of the organism that is unable to regulate its cravings. After all, our higher-level processes are available to inhibit our cravings, but it becomes harder and harder for them to inhibit the urge when the organism repeats it and takes pleasure in doing so. Other addictive behaviors such as video games and gambling are milder versions of drugs and sex, but they have the same mechanism. There are people who would rather play video games all day and isolate themselves in their rooms rather than do their daily duties and socialize with real people. These people are known as hikikomori in Japan. Gambling is more sophisticated and takes into factor some other cognitive factors, but it builds on the fact that we are innately driven to seek pleasure. Our rationality is at stake when the pleasure is fast and short-term. We have no time to think, and this impulsivity often results in poor behavior. Think of it this way: when time is limited, our brain turns to its primitive ways and looks for the behavior that anticipates the most pleasure. Again, the fault isn't just on the circuitry, but also on the individual who is unaware of his/ her urges and is unable to regulate them.

Awareness of the urge

Now that we have talked about the mechanism of our reward systems and their implications for addictive behaviors, we can start to look at some of the treatments and solutions to our narcissistic cravings. We all are narcissistic in our own ways, some may be higher up on the scale while others are grounded. Nonetheless, all of us have the circuitry that drives us to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The Buddha described this thirst as the root of our suffering. Besides its clinical implications, pleasure in daily life leads to wanting more and more, so it takes us away from the present and keeps our minds engaged in planning and seeking the future. The more we engage in this habit of seeking more, the less satisfied we are, and the more irritable and annoyed we become when our pleasures are not met. Truly, we are like monkeys going from one branch of objects and situations to another. We lack insight into what we are doing and where we are going, thus we are just dragged upon our impulses of thirst and aversion. 

Hence, the wise ones say that one who overcomes the thirst for wanting more and seeks contentment with what he already has is the one who has found true tranquility and peace. 

Of course, this is easier said than done, but it is possible. And the Buddha is a living embodiment of someone who was able to overcome this innate thirst. So what are some techniques the Buddha preached to overcome this innate narcissism, and how can we use this in practical life? The classical way to cease addictive behaviors of pleasure is to practice mindful meditation. Awareness of the mind's habitual tendencies naturally allows our higher processes to be in control and reduce the urge. Just sitting there with the urge allows you to learn that the urge is different from you and that the urge is a passing thing. You don't have to suppress the urge, nor do you have to act on it, all you have to do is observe it from a neutral point of view. Slowly this observation leads to seeing the urge as simply a manifestation of the mind and nothing more. Physiologically, this awareness also builds resilience and courage in withstanding the urge and not getting into the loop of addictive behaviors. Our dopamine system is less likely to drag us from one thing to another, instead, it is tranquilized and kept under control to this very moment. This very awareness of our mind is what took the Buddha from being a human to being a God. By God, I don't mean a metaphysical or spiritual being, but rather someone who has achieved a mindset of contentment and has lost all thirst for pleasure. The awareness reduces our autopilot mode and keeps us in touch with our feelings and thoughts. We see these feelings as manifestations of impermanent phenomena, that come and go on their own nature.

It is difficult to use willpower or even awareness sometimes to overcome strong urges, hence the Buddha has 5 techniques that allow us to overcome our habitual tendencies. They are used in order so that if the first one doesn't work, the next one can be used. This way, the last one is used only if the first four have not yet worked. These five are listed below

  1. Replace the urge with another pleasurable behavior that is less intense than the original one ie using nicotine gum instead of smoking

  2. Examine and contemplate the long-term implications of the addictive behavior

  3. Avoid getting into situations, or evoking stimuli that lead to addictive behavior

  4. Find the root cause of the addictive behavior, and scrutinize its pros and cons of it.

  5. With pure willpower, apply determination and fight mind with mind.

These techniques are useful but they all get back at the notion of nonjudgemental introspective awareness. Without feelings of guilt or shame, simply be aware of what you are about to do, or what you are already doing, and see it as it truly is without getting caught up in feelings of wanting more.

Thirst, Cessation, and Insight

This last section is my reflection on some of the more advanced topics in Buddhism, meditation, and spirituality. It goes back to the topic of thirst and narcissism. We reported that thirst is the root of suffering because it produces dissatisfaction, but the natural question then becomes what causes thirst? Sure, mindfulness can rid us of this thirst but there is another factor that is required for the pure annihilation of this thirst, and that factor is the insight into the emptiness of self. 

Excessive interest in ourselves is what leads to wanting more and more. We are born to actualize ourselves and this causes us to become obsessed with our abilities and characteristics at each moment of our life. This is what makes us miserable, egotistical, and animalistic by nature. We keep wanting more to actualize something that is fleeting in nature.  

But this state of being is remedied and purified by insight into reality. Animals live according to their instinct because they have limited rationality and insight into their own minds. Unlike them, humans do have the ability to think about themselves and reflect on the world and self. Besides applying mindfulness to our urges, we should also see them as they are with pure insight. The Buddha suggests we see the futility in our urges and their rewards. 

What is the worth of these pleasurable things when they are so fleeting, impermanent, and short-lasting? What is the worth of motivating ourselves to seek something that will be taken away from us after a while? Why seek objects and things that by nature will become old and boring, creating the thirst for more? The Buddha asks us to reflect on these questions and see the nature of impermanence. All things arise and fall according to their own nature, and this perception of self that we create is simply an illusion.

The self is nothing but an accumulation of experience of pleasant and unpleasant things. The self is actualized when it drives against its obstacles and accomplishes what is anticipated as pleasure. This process of actualizing the self can come in different forms: 

It can be done through getting more objects and being rich, or it can be done through working out and developing a physical body, or it can be done through studying and becoming an intellectual philosopher, a doctor, an engineer, or prestigious personnel in the society. These examples are completely opposite of instant gratification because their rewards take time, effort, and energy. Yet, they are nonetheless pleasures of pursuit and when we meet them, we feel the relief of energy. 

We feel accomplished and actualized, but then after a while, the joy is over. The satisfaction lasts for a while, and then we are burdened with searching for new things to actualize ourselves. This process of self-actualization, this thirst for growing the self is the root of our misery. So what causes thirst? Thirst is caused by this innate interest in self, and what we perceive as an independent entity. The cessation of this thirst is done through meditating on impermanence as mentioned earlier, and also by practicing selfless deeds of compassion and altruism. When we practice compassion and spend time serving others, we become less worried about our own narcissistic urges and focus on the welfare of others. In this process of being selfless, we purify ourselves of wanting more and start to be happy by making others happy. We see self in others, and others in self. Soon, regardless of whether we get what we want or not, we still remain balanced and equipoise. This level of tranquility and equanimity is only possible when we let go of ourselves and serve others. The greatest of philosophers contemplated the world and self, but very few were satisfied with their quest for knowledge. The greatest of scientists such as Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, and Charles Darwin, all looked back at their careers and sighed in dissatisfaction. They explained how their intellectual achievements, though remarkable and honorable, meant nothing if they didn't help society. 

The ultimate motivation of the mind is to overcome this thirst for self and live with compassion at each moment. This is the way to reach the ultimate state of self-actualization, the state of Godliness. If anything is worth doing, it should be done with an attitude of serving others and improving the quality of the current world. 

This doesn't mean improving the materialistic state of the world necessarily, but rather just having the intention to serve others to one's best ability is enough. The act of smiling at strangers, giving change to passing homeless people, and exchanging words of kindness is enough to change the local world. No need for grandiosity, no need for overwhelming change. This present moment of compassion, this is enough, this is satisfaction at its core, and THIS is the ultimate bliss one can reach.

"With perfect and unyielding faith, with steadfastness respect, and courtesy, with conscientiousness and awe, work calmly for the happiness of others"- Shantideva, 

The Way of the Bodhisattva.