My Brain’s Reward System

drawing of brain and woman talking about how confused they are about feedback they are getting for the brain's reward systemIn Tuesday’s post, Resolutions and Your Reward System about the brain’s reward system, I hinted towards the end as to how to use that new knowledge of the brain’s reward system to achieve your goals, find your purpose, motivation, etc. We (our brains) are continually learning, and that means that the reward system is too. Understanding how my brain’s reward system developed will help me going forward.

Since my brain is the only one I have intimate access to, I will delve within my brain to look at how my brain’s reward system developed. I am going to take a deeper dive into what motivates and where and when those motivations developed. Motivation is essential to look at because it is the result of the reward system. The reward system is the foundation of our motivation. It helps us determine which path to take and stay on that path until we reach the goal.

If it is one thing that I have figured out over the years, our brains are unique to us, to the experiences we have had throughout our lives. Even people who grow up in the same household will experience their world differently than their siblings. And that experience becomes incorporated into our brains and becomes the road map to how we interpret and interact with the world. To include what motivates us via our brain’s reward system.

Motivation and Rewards System

Motivation is the reason or reasons why one has for acting or behaving in a particular way. I am going to use a universal example, money. I thought money was enough to motivate me to continue on my path of success and push myself more each day to make more money. Money is what makes the world go around, after all. But I was wrong. 

I now know that money does not motivate me. But growing up poor, money was a constant worry, and it motivated me, but it was a false motivation. It wasn’t what motivates me. I did not figure that out until recently. I kept trying to motivate myself with money and making money, being successful (whatever that means). All I did was make myself miserable.

To realize and understand that money is not a motivator for me like it might be for others, I had to know how my brain’s reward system developed. It should come as no surprise, unless you are a new reader, that I grew up in an abusive home. Growing up with those experiences affected many areas of my brain. I don’t know if the abuse directly affected my reward system, but I think the inconsistency in my life may have lead to reward confusion.

Reward Confusion

When you don’t know how to act or react to a situation or interact with a caregiver because that person is inconsistent with how they interact with you, you have no idea what will be rewarding. I came up with the term’ reward confusion.’ Since it takes more than one-time connecting behavior to a reward to embed that connection, inconsistent input will create confusion.

An example of this for me growing up is cleaning up our front porch. We stored a lot of stuff on the enclosed front porch. It became the junk closet. I remember cleaning up that porch, organizing it, and getting praise for my clean up efforts. And so, I would go back to that cleaning and organizing behavior to receive positive recognition. I remember thinking that it felt nice to receive that recognition, so I would start finding those types of projects. I wanted more of that praise.

The only small hiccup with my plan was that my mother’s reaction to my cleaning and organizing was inconsistent. I never knew which I would receive, praise, criticism or suspicion, or a combination of all of those. I tried to make sense of what I could do to receive recognition and not criticism. Eventually, I gave up trying. I figured if I was going to get yelled at might as well get yelled at for a reason. Looking back, I think her inconsistent reaction to me was because I was in the scapegoat role.

Introverts Reward Systems

I am pretty sure we are born with a foundational reward system. I think that because people are born leaning more towards introversion or extroversion. Introverts feel more rewarded by being in quieter places with fewer people (that is my introversion). Since the reward system of introversion starts very early in development, it makes sense that it is the foundation for the future brain’s reward system.  Or that it is connected somehow to the brain learning other rewarding behaviors.

drawing of women meditating finding forgivenessWhat I think is interesting is that introverts are more sensitive to dopamine (neurotransmitter). Too much dopamine can easily overstimulate us. But dopamine plays a crucial role in the brain’s reward system. This sensitivity to dopamine seems contrary to what I understand is ‘rewarding’ for me as an introvert; quiet places. But that is rewarding then the dopamine levels increase in my brain, activated my brain’s reward system.

I am an introvert through and through. But to achieve what I thought I wanted, money and success, I pushed myself to be extroverted. I attended networking events, sometimes three to four times a week, on top of other events, and my people-intensive role in real estate. I thought that was what I needed to be, extroverted and continuously engaging with people.  Throughout all of that, I was slowly dying inside. I had to do something that would work with who I am, not against it.

Reward Me; Reward My Brain

To get to a better place than where I was, I had to take a soul-searching look at myself. That resulted in the revelation that I am an introvert. I knew that once upon a time ago but did not see the quiet strength of introversion. Once I understood that quiet strength, I worked to embrace that.

I then had to make changes in my career and other life choices that supported my introversion instead of fighting against it. What that change has done for me has been more rewarding than any other things that I have done. It is the beginning of reorganizing my reward system so that it works better for me.

I suppose it aligns with my brain’s reward system and purpose in what I am doing. Once I aligned those two things, they ignited my motivation. It is amazing how those things are connected, and once I figured out one of them, the other two fell into place, like that last piece of a puzzle that you thought was lost. It only took me a couple of years to be brave enough to start figuring things out.

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