As I wrote in Finding Motivation: My Brain’s Reward System, I became curious about motivation, my brain’s reward system, and how those two are tied together. As I read more about our brain’s reward systems, I came across research on how childhood abuse affects the development of our brain’s reward system. How does that affect me as I work towards my goals?
I am always looking at how I can further understand why I am the way I am. That lead me to read about the development of our brain’s reward system is. My ability to learn was stunted by growing up in an abusive environment. I am not referring to learning about my ABC’s and 123’s, although that was affected too. But that is a story for another time. I am referencing how my brain’s reward system understands and interprets reward cues.
If you are looking at achieving goals, you can find a lot of information on developing such a plan on the internet. What I don’t see, and what I am curious about, is the underlying mechanisms within our brains that hinder or help us with those goals that we set for ourselves. Because without understanding those mechanisms, I can plan all sorts of goals and have the best business plan, and I will fail time and time again.
Reward Cues and Survival
We learn a lot from our caregivers as we grow up in this world. Some of it is beneficial, some of it isn’t, and some of it is downright wrong. We are hardwired to attach to our caregivers from the moment we are born, no matter the level of care received. That hardwiring is initially for survival. We are born unable to take care of ourselves, and we need that caregiver to ensure our safety until we can do that for ourselves. But there is much more than survival that we need from our caregivers.
Our connection with our caregiver also helps us to learn how to live in the world. An integral part of that learning is the development of our brain’s reward system. A part of the development of that system is understanding and recognizing reward cues. When the caregiver’s relationship is abusive, inconsistent, or absent, the brain’s ability to learn about those reward cues is impaired.1
Survival Takes Precedence
What impairs the brain’s ability to learn about those reward cues is the need to focus on surviving abuse. The example that I use, and coincidentally was in the research article that I cite is hypervigilance. Hypervigilance still affects me to this day. When I am most aware of my hypervigilance, I know that I am missing a lot of the world around me. During times of hypervigilance, usually when I am in large groups that are loud and talking over each other, my ability to process words is stunted.
As a child, growing up needing to be constantly aware of the world around me for any hint of danger or threat, my developing brain could not focus on much else. Survival beats out most other higher functioning. Remember that the amygdala can hijack our brains to keep us safe. I see this as something similar, if not connected to the amygdala’s ability to override our brains’ higher thinking areas. Not only that, it is exhausting. I didn’t have the energy to deal with much else.
Survival was the brain’s primary goal when I was growing up. The things that others in my cohort were concerned about were so trivial to me. Who cares about good grades? What do those do for me? Nothing. At least nothing that would help me in my immediate world of abuse. And so, I didn’t learn that grades were rewards. I didn’t set goals or try to achieve much of anything. I couldn’t envision a future that was further out than what was in front of me.
Anticipating Future Rewards
Understanding rewards includes identifying a rewarding stimulus, learning from that reward, anticipating future rewards, and engaging in goal-directed behavior towards rewards.1 What I would consider a reward cue or reward stimuli is the key to understanding the disconnect in my rewards system.
I wonder if I am thinking about this backward, which came first, the goal or the reward cue or stimuli we learned to associate with a specific plan? I am not sure, but there is one thing that I think I need to dig deeper into, and that is anticipating future reward cues. That may be where my brain has a disconnect. Let’s be honest. There are a lot of places that my brain has disconnects. But the way to connect those areas is to know what is disconnected, right?
Thinking back on my earlier years, I don’t remember anything that would have been considered a future reward. I think I was so focused on surviving, getting through another day, that I couldn’t think about much else. Even when I won something, it was not a reinforcing situation, not reinforcing in the right way. Winning, somehow, was the opposite of a reward, or the reward was shallow.
Winning was NOT a Reward Cue
I remember being in a horse show, it was my first, and I was excited. I was excited about being able to show my skills. Instead, another person had to lead my horse around the ring, which I felt all I did was sit in the saddle. I was mad about that. And I remember thinking that just because of my age, not my ability. It was bullshit.
When I won first place in that event, it did not make me happy. It made me mad. And when I expressed my anger, I was told to smile and be a better winner. I did, but it wasn’t a real smile. For me, my smile was just as hollow as that blue ribbon.
Ever since then, and maybe even before that time, there are always other reasons I win, none of which have anything to do with my abilities and talents. Years later, during one of my adolescent rages, I destroyed all of the ribbons I had won. After all, those awards had nothing to do with me. And therein may be what is at the core of my reward system disconnect.
- Novick, Andrew M et al. “The effects of early life stress on reward processing.” Journal of psychiatric research 101 (2018): 80-103. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2018.02.002 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5889741/