Ep. 59 – How (and Why) Your Brain Loves Rewards

Today we’re going to talk about rewards – and specifically how the brain is wired to respond to the premise and promise of a reward. 

In fact, your brain has likely perked up already just from that last sentence. Even the idea of a reward tickles the attention. That’s because our brains are reward detectors. 

Our brain is also a prediction machine – so it is assessing whether what you are about to do, say, or experience will likely result in a positive, negative, or neutral reward. 

And rewards aren’t always tied to external factors. We make deals with our brains all the time. 

Do you ever find yourself saying: “After I finish this, I can go do that”?

That’s a frequent approach to how I motivate myself to simply get through email. 

Some of us may remember this reward contract from our childhood when healthy asks were incentivized by the dangle of dessert. Or perhaps we’re the ones who do the dangling for others. How, when, and with whom we present contracts is a key insight into our own reward value system. And that is especially insightful for how it is used regarding our personal behavior (or lack of it). 

Sometimes the juiciest part of a reward is the anticipation of it. It could be savoring something, such as looking at a menu online before you go to a new or even a favorite restaurant. Or it can be the absence of something negative that is a reward; if I do this, I won’t get in trouble.

The ring of rewards is all around us. It’s the main ingredient in marketing, and businesses pay big bucks to find the right way to get you to respond to their reward. Some of us can walk right by a bright red sale sign but then we eagerly click on the link, button, or app that promises a 10% discount. 

We are constantly being told and sold on the give-to-get principle – whether it’s for our attention, our wallet, our time, and even our sleep – more on that in a bit. 

Each of these efforts are reward exchanges. The power in this practice is using a reward system with intention. If we don’t, we can find ourselves marinating in the mindless pursuit of something, anything for a quick boost. 

These tend to show up when we’re social scrolling, aimlessly shopping or eating, buffering emotions by getting wrapped up in other people’s lives, or prolonging procrastination from something that doesn’t offer us that quick-and-easy reward. 

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that you have more control over your cognitive calories than you think. Rewards are an important motivator as long as they are tied to corresponding and conscious action. The challenge in our add-to-cart world is that it’s easier than ever to get stimuli without having to give much effort. 

Before we get into our everyday actions around rewards, let’s start with the biology behind our behavior and take a quick tour of the reward system of the brain. This structure is found along the primary dopamine pathways that run throughout the brain. Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter associated with rewards and pleasure. 

What makes this pathway so powerful is that it involves multiple sections of our brain. Let’s start with the amygdala, that’s part of our limbic system. This is where we associate emotions and feelings towards the experienced reward. 

So after a great meal with friends, the amygdala connects happy feelings to that combination of people, place, and activity. This connection is stored in the hippocampus, that’s where memories and learning are formed. So we’re now logging our experience in the reward repository where it can be searched for later. 

As the dopamine is traveling the pathway, it makes a stop in the frontal lobes of our cerebral cortex. This is the information superhighway of our brain. It’s where we do our advanced thinking, planning, and motivation. So our brain has now registered the feelings, memory, and understanding of how to achieve the reward again. 

Okay, that’s a quick tour of the science. The psychology of the reward center revolves around the concept of reinforcement. When our brain gets a reward, it relies on the prediction sorting center to make note of it in hopes of getting more of it. 

More simply put, what gets repeated gets reinforced. This becomes a powerful driver to the lather, rinse, repeat of our previous behavior when we are craving rewards again. 

Last year, I heard the concept of “revenge bedtime,” which describes intentionally delaying sleep after a long day of doing & duties in order to have some element of fun or escape that we feel we earned. That could be one more streaming episode, opening apps, having that food or drink, or other action that we know may carry a cost the next day, but we grasp for it in the moment to get that gratification…now. 

While we are mostly aware of these decisions when we’re making them, the indulgence in immediate rewards can lead to a pattern of unconscious rebellion. That’s the underlying concept of our habits, including the ones we want and those we don’t. 

I do this with sleep. I wake up early most mornings, so I feel the fatigue at night but I also crave the connection with my partner, kids, and even just time to myself and so I trade sleep for it. The biological invoice comes due the next day but the stronger the reward for that trade, the more likely I am to do it again (and again). 

Pay attention to the subtle sabotage of our intentions, the little leaks of time, and the daily deals we make and break with ourselves. What regular rewards are becoming reinforcement of something that doesn’t actually  serve you? What micro decisions are contributing to the brain drain at the end of your day, or even into the next day?

Each action to chase or choose a reward is a decision. You may have control over the individual choice, but not the cumulative outcome. Look to see where your rewards are in support of or in conflict to your goals. Is it helping or hurting your objective for health, wealth, productivity, relationships, and opportunities?

What can be earnest is our desire to save money, get healthy, and power through that to-do list but each reward taken right now can defer, delay, or destroy gains towards our deeper goals. 

Recognizing our reward response helps us see where our decisions form a pattern. Check your brain logs to see what patterns are being reinforced. We all have them. The good news is that it doesn’t take much to disrupt or swap out those mental manuals. Episode 53 dug into the idea of the One More, One Less technique that helps gently nudge our brain into updated patterns-that can help here too. 

Simple steps can provide important signals later when our pattern starts to play out. A setting on your phone, a note in the right place, and a refreshed menu of rewards can kickstart a new mental log of what actions help you find more of what matters. And it also helps us more fully enjoy the rewards when they happen. Part of that is not letting them get diluted under the disguise of distraction. 

Rewards are important. They are special because there is time in between them. Savor the moments and minutes with them and know that your brain has fully recorded it. You got this. And you’ll get it again. 

Now on to the other ways you take good care of you. Keep promises to yourself. Doing the right things at the right time for the right reasons is one of the sweetest rewards. 

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.