The brain is a creature of habit. It just loves predictability, repetition and consistency. Think about the things you love in your life, the salivation at the thought of chocolate after you’ve finished the dishes, that first sip of wine after the kids have gone down, that buzz after you’ve just bench pressed 35kg or the rush from snipering some virtual soldiers brain matter across the 40” HDTV in the latest online video game military assault. What? Was that last example a bit too graphic? Let’s have a think about this.
Our brains absorb our environment like one huge unbleached sea sponge. We take in a colossal amount of sensory experiences at any one given time, enough in fact that we have to filter and generalise a lot of information in order to cope. By sensory I am referring to sight, touch, taste, smell and sound. All of these senses give us essential information about our environment. They inform us if something is safe or dangerous and in order to do this then our brain needs to instantaneously lookback through the old experiences archives and figure out if we’ve had this experience before and whether it was safe and enjoyable or if it was a bit dodgy and to be avoided. If safe and enjoyable then our brain treats us to a little splash of happiness called dopamine in order to motivate us to repeat the good stuff. If a sensory experience is connected to a negative experience, for example the smell of burning or a wasp sting then our brain sends an email to the body in the form of adrenaline to quickly react and get this unpleasant situation under control or as far away from us as possible.
Just have a think about the way you reward yourself. Many people associate smoking with relaxation when nicotine does anything but relax our body systems. Smoking a cigarette becomes built into our reward patterns, increases the release of dopamine and symbolises different things for different people, for example, it’s time for a break from work or the day is done or possible that it helps interrupt a stress pattern and helps regulate our arousal levels. Nicotine is highly addictive and dopamine is short lived so needs repeating again and again and again. The situation is very similar to comfort eating, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, shopping, working out, watching pornography and in some cases, and I’m thinking about football hooliganism – violence. I am aware that all of the above examples are stereotypically negative and this is not my point. Healthy rewards include anything that is repeated consistently that gives us a sense of pleasure, well-being and helps promote positivity. Exercise, relationships, gardening, healthy eating, watching sport, meditating etcetera will all activate our reward systems if we perceive them to be worthwhile and we can be ‘hungry’ for all of them if we repeat them enough times that our brains associate pleasure to the activity.
So, why do we often end up in unhealthy habits? Why do we drink alcohol much more regularly than we logically know to be healthy? Why do we reach for the biscuits when we know that the ingredients do us harm? Why do we max our credit cards out on clothes when we already have a wardrobe full? The answer is really quite simple – these acts once were a really effective way of relieving us from stress, pain or torment and made us feel good. These acts, or very similar ones created moments of feeling good, activated our reward system and then got stored in the memory banks under ‘Good-worth repeating’. So we repeated them again, and again when we felt the need to have some temporary relief until the behaviour became a pattern. This why it’s hard to give certain habits up. We can even turn our attention to addiction. If cocaine was purely addictive then anyone and everyone who sampled the drug would become addicted to it, yet this is not the case. Many people casually take drugs without becoming addicted. Gabor Mate, addiction expert and physician suggests that it is not the drug itself that is addictive, more the association, repetition and reward that is created for temporary relief from pain and trauma, often childhood trauma. The ‘drug’ (which could be anything from heroin to shopping) acts as the ultimate pain killer and allows us to disconnect from our stress and torment and ‘survive’ the world in the only way in which we know how or are able to do. I bet we can all recall that kid in school who smoked young, drank young, started taking cannabis and eventually ended up in a really destructive cycle of crime and addiction to harder substances. Why them and not you? What emotional, physical or psychological torment might that individual have been experiencing that needed external systems (smoking, drinking, fighting) to activate their reward systems in order to escape pain at some level? At what point did the original painkiller become inaffective so the next option was to move up a level onto a harder drug in an attempt to suppress the torment? This cycle is all too common and one I’m sure we can all recognise.
Now, if we can start to recognise our own patterns and reward systems then we at least have a choice to do something about it. It might be hard but if we swap eating junk food to working out and repeat this pattern enough times to produce enough dopamine then we create a new, much healthier pattern of behaviour and our brain strengthens the associations between exercise and pleasure. We may absolutely hate exercise, but if we do it enough times, break through that psychological wall and create a new reward pattern that we seek to repeat again and again. We do have this choice but what about our children? What are their reward systems and how might these either help or hinder our children as they grow and face the world?
Ideally, a young child’s dopamine system should be activated through relationships. This is why the attachment relationship is so crucial for children. If a child has the opportunity to be loved, valued and nurtured by parents who make themselves both emotionally and physically available to them then the world looks rosy. The child can then seek pleasure within relationships, internalise that the world is a caring, safe place and the child should be able to regulate their emotions and have healthy relationships throughout their life. Sadly, I have witnessed this to not be the case on far too many occasions. All too often children have come to my office with next to no value internalised about their parents or human relationships. Worryingly these children often have value in alternative sources of reward such as televisions, tablets, smart phones, high sugar foods and in some cases violence, even if within play or imaginary forms. Many parents will often tell me that their child will not listen to them, acts out and if removed from a television or games system then all hell breaks loose. Why is this do we think? What might this child’s dopamine system be ‘addicted’ to? If a child has had access to a screen from a young age and the amount of time unregulated, then what could possibly have happened in this young developing brains circuitry? It may well have created a reward pattern connected to super heroes and cartoon characters as a result of the absence of face to face human stimulation whilst parents are either at work, cooking the tea, watching the soaps or maybe due to parental emotional unavailability such as depression or stress. Remember the first few lines of this blog, our brains are like sponges that absorb our environment. What environment and stimulation are our children soaking up? How often are these being repeated until reward patterns are formed? What messages were learned from this about the world, relationships and safety? It’s worth taking the time to reflect upon this because our brains are buggers for repetition and reward, what do you want to soak up and what would you like for your child?