These reward centres secrete a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which creates a feeling of pleasure and motivation in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). Other centres of the brain such as the rational prefrontal cortex (PFC), the memory-holding hippocampus and the emotional amygdala are also connected to the NAcc and can increase or decrease the levels of pleasure we experience with the judgments they make.
Imagine you are eating a delicious dinner and loads of dopamine molecules are ‘tickling’ your NAcc as you bite into an amazing Florentine steak. Suddenly, you get a call to tell you that somebody in your family is ill, or your boss calls to give you some bad news on the project you were working on. How is your dinner now? The PFC has made a calculation about what this news means, using some facts taken from the hippocampus’s library of memories and triggering relevant emotions in the amygdala. Anxiety, fear, stress, and shock can completely block the satisfaction of even the greatest pleasures.
The opposite can happen too, the PFC’s positive expectations can boost the sensation of pleasure. Imagine that you are in a Michelin-starred restaurant. You have been waiting for this day. Finally, it is here. And what is this? Waiters dressed in white tuxedos bring huge plates with small blobs of red mash. You have no idea what the food is, but you take a bite of it on the end of the spoon and you expect nothing but total deliciousness. And it is indeed delicious, partly because of all the amazing combinations of flavours, and partly because your PFC has been expecting it and has amplified the pleasure even more.
Emotional pain and fear centres are another part of the story. The main area for these is the amygdala, which keeps track of all the things that might have caused you damage in the past. However, the amygdala, being part of the mammal brain, is relatively primitive and often looks at immediate consequences rather than long-term effects. The same applies to the reward centres of the brain, namely the areas called nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which create a feeling of pleasure.
For example, the delicious creamy pastry you might have for afternoon tea today will definitely give you a big dopamine kick, causing pleasure and a desire to have it again. A few hours later you might feel sluggish and have difficulty focusing on the task at hand, but the mammal brain centres might not have linked it to the coffee and sugary snack you had before. As a daily habit, long term this can cause weight gain, loss of productivity and type II diabetes, with the gruesome possibility of losing your toes, as well as brain and body inflammation – loads of unpleasant, health-threatening consequences. Doesn’t sound good, does it? But does your mammal brain want to think about that? Of course not. And that’s why we need to use our powerful rational PFC.
First, we have to come up with a list of as many benefits of changing that habit as we can and another list of negative consequences now and in the long term if we don’t change it. Let’s take replacing sugary snacks with healthier options as a desired change. We are aiming to write down around 50 benefits of the new behaviour and 50 drawbacks of being stuck in the old pattern to reinforce our motivation to change. To come up with such a large number of benefits and drawbacks for the new and the old behaviour, think of eight main areas of your life such as work, family, romantic relationship, social life, hobbies, physical health, mental health, and personal growth or spiritual practices. Now go through each of these areas one by one and come up with as many benefits of the new behaviours and as many drawbacks of the old as you can for each of them. It might be helpful to take an A4 piece of paper, draw one vertical line in the middle and three equally spaced horizontal lines crossing it. That would divide the paper into eight equal squares. Dedicate each square to a different area of your life and label the squares. Draw a ‘+’ on the left of each square and write as many benefits as you can think of for replacing sugary snacks with healthier options.