The Brain and Its Rewards


“The artist formerly known as Prince” changed his name to this symbol.


The human brain’s pleasure/reward center likes three things: dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenalin. Upon receiving those molecules, the pleasure center translates them into good feelings such as confidence, energy, pleasure, and euphoria. In his latest book, The Future of the Mind, physicist and futurist Dr. Michio Kaku explains what addictive substances do:

These drugs first penetrate the blood-brain barrier and then cause the overproduction of neurotransmitters like dopamine, which then floods the nucleus accumbens, a tiny pleasure center located deep in the brain near the amygdala. The dopamine, in turn, is produced by certain brain cells in the ventral tegmental area, called the VTA cells. All drugs basically work the same way: by crippling the VTA-nucleus accumbens circuit, which controls the flow of dopamine and other neurotransmitters to the pleasure center.

The limbic system has been a part of us since before modern humans evolved, and sometimes we call it the lizard brain. Its primitive and very necessary function is to make us feel good about doing things that are good for us. Because the lizard brain is so simple, it is easily fooled by the chemical con artists known as substances. What they do is “hijack” the limbic system and give us good feelings about doing stuff that is actually bad for us.

The Inescapable Parallel

A person may do something that provides good feelings, but which is harmful when seen from an objective viewpoint. It also taps into the age-old conflict between immediate gratification (yummy taste right now) and delayed gratification (healthy body for the rest of life). An example might be eating a plate of chocolate-covered bacon with a side order of cheese with cheese sauce.

Edible substances very easily provide good feelings. That meal delivers immediate gratification — it’s not like taking a pill, where there is a delay while digestion releases the effects. It’s more like mainlining a hard drug by shooting it into a vein. Even though its long-range effects are devastating, food consumption will very often perform as advertised, making us feel better right away. In fact, it acts just like those substances and activities that are recognized by DSM-5 as dispensing pleasure to the brain’s reward center.

While the admission is made that substances and activities can enslave people in this particular way, the word “addiction” is all but absent from the book of definitions. Like “the artist formerly known as Prince,” it changed its name while remaining the same entity. Currently, the accepted term for what laypeople still call addiction is “Substance Use Disorder” or SUD. It comes in three degrees: mild, moderate, and severe. Some authorities dispute this model, seeing addiction as an either/or proposition.

In “Food Addiction in Children,” Dr. Pretlow noted how easily children learn that the pleasure of eating is a quick fix for pain, stress or boredom. He went on to say:

As the children continue to eat to ease emotional distress, dopamine receptor changes presumably take place in their brains. Once significant dopamine receptor changes have taken place in their brains, the children are unable to cease the comfort eating – they are addicted. … The addiction to the pleasure of food appears to be on a continuum: overweight children would seem to be partially addicted; obese children fully addicted; morbidly obese children are likely in tolerance mode.

Strangely, food overconsumption is exactly the type of substance abuse that might most appropriately be seen as a spectrum. It can be mild, moderate, or severe. Ironically, though it fits the incremental “Substance Use Disorder” paradigm well, food addiction isn’t recognized by DSM-5.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind, 2014
Image by Nicholas Babaian


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