Rewards and Reward Pathways

'Reward' is a word that very generally just means something good. However, in discussing the Reich and Lowen tradition, in which the concept of pleasure plays such a pivotal role, it is important to distinguish pleasure, a full process that occurs in both body and mind and which comes to completion, from a shorter process, that occurs only in the mind and which does not always complete into pleasure. I call this shorter process 'reward'.

Everything that happens in the body is mapped in the brain. If one injuries one's toe, activity in the brain will reflect this. Pleasure is no different. Pleasure is mapped in the brain. To some, this means that pleasure occurs in the brain. As a philosophical discussion, this is unresolvable, but it has implications in the way that the pleasure function gets distorted in people's lives. Humans have found ways to bypass the body, or at least the health of the body, and stimulate areas of the brain that are connected to pleasure. But the body and the personality do not gain the salutary effects of pleasure. These brain areas are reward pathways, and deliberately manipulating them is a core process in addiction.

An example is heroin use. It is possible, when heroin is affecting the brain, for a person to feel an intense pleasure-ish sensation, even if the body is in dire straits as is often the case in middle and late addiction. All recreational drugs including nicotine and caffeine use this shortcut. Some prescription drugs do also, including prescription opiates. Endorphins from exercise do this. Even manipulating swings of blood sugar can do this.

While pleasure is a self-regulating process that does not lead to excess, reward is short cut that leads people into endless, unregulated loops of excitement without any satisfaction, and without the vitality that satisfaction brings with it. Our culture often confuses reward for pleasure. Exploiting reward often leads to excess, while pleasure does not. Where there is basic pleasurelessness, though, one can be convinced that reward is all one has.

Drugs are a clear example of normal body processes being bypassed. But it is possible also for the ego to exploit reward pathways in the brain independently of what is really happening to the body and to the person. It does this by manipulating stimuli that produce dopamine in the brain's reward centers.

One role of the ego is to aid and assist the pleasure function. In this, the ego conceives of means to an end (of pleasure) The hurt ego also conceives of means to obtaining love by becoming lovable. The ego is able to derive a certain excitement and elation from obtaining these means. The means can be almost anything, money, praise, a promotion, an academic success, a seat at a fancy place, etc... To the ego, an external reward is anything it believes will lead to pleasure or love. As is generally well known, this anticipation leads to an immediate if unsatisfying reward, in the brain and in the mind.

In limited amounts, this makes great organismic sense. Real opportunities in life should get strong attention, and the reward function works as an attention getter. The ego can be correct that an opportunity will lead to love or pleasure, but the ego can also be laboring under an illusion. Most importantly though, the means can come to be confused with the end. In our complex culture, a great many awards and status symbols are created to fill the demand for a sensation of reward.

The basis of the elating effect of external reward seems to be 'opportunity' to get pleasure or love in the future. But a dedication to obtaining rewards can lead to get stuck on an endless search for 'opportunity' and 'future'. While a balanced interest in opportunity can lead to more intense pleasure, an unbalanced interest in opportunity and future both probably arises from pleasurelessness and also serves to increase the pleasurelessness.

It has been said that all behavior is motivated by obtaining pleasure or avoiding pain. However, this concept is often distorted into the idea that all behavior is motivated by seeking reward or avoiding punishment. Pleasure and pain are body-mediated experiences, and are similar between all people. Reward and punishment are ego-mediated concepts, and are wildly variable, person to person, and even moment to moment to the same person.

Activities can be addicting and depleting when they abuse the brains response to opportunity. Surfing the internet, because it provides nonstop 'opportunities' in the form of inviting clicks can do this. Workaholism, especially if one works with business opportunities or information can do this. Gambling can do this. Consumerism can do this because the material success of the culture provides an ease and an abundance of shopping opportunity which is perhaps 'unnatural' Video games are the 'heroin' of 'opportunity abuse' The games are set up to make each click an opportunity, and people have died playing them for days at a time. The brain's natural priority for opportunity pulls a person completely out of the body and out of the present if abused.

Pornography has become another type of heroin. Viewing it through high volume of images gives rise to both sexual arousal and dopamine spikes. A tolerance develops to both the dopaminergic and arousal effects which may for a while be 'treated' with an increase in dose. Eventually the viewer develops an indifference in the body (impotence) coupled with an obsession of the mind. This state might be mistaken as being very sexual because of the overwhelming mental interest, but it is essentially non-sexual.

Sugar abuse is socially sanctioned chemical manipulation of the reward system. Sugar has some role in eating pleasure, but unlike other foods, it also stimulates the reward centers of the brain. Sugar is one food that can be eaten easily even when one is full because its effects on the reward centers override the satiation function. That is why desserts are eaten last in a meal. If the main dish or vegetable are served last they may not be eaten because the person is satiated. But if dessert is served last it will always be eaten, even if abdominal discomfort results. This brain preference for sugar probably makes evolutionary sense because sugar, when present in small amounts in food, indicates ripeness and probably best nutritive value, and the food source should noticed. Modern agriculture though, concentrates sugar and makes it cheap and always available. Cycles of self-comfort through sugar are set up. Beyond a threshold, it is not so much the amount of sugar ingested as the timing. Learning to manage stress and bad feelings by blocking the feeling with sugar is addicting, this is usually what snacking and 'grazing is about' The brain's reaction to sugar seems to arise both from sweet taste in the mouth and a blood sugar level at the high end of normal. High blood sugar leads to insulin resistance, weight gain, and diabetes. Using food for behavioral reinforcement in an otherwise adequately fed adult or child requires using sugar or rapidly metabolized carbohydrate, for reasons explained above. This has great danger of leading to obesity, because the re-unforced behavior becomes associated with sugar, and perhaps all effort becomes associated with sugar

Because problems of dopamine contribute to depression, reward system abuse is often pursued as 'self-treatment' but it will deepen the

When people are asked to consider the role and extent of pleasure in their lives, they frequently refer to 'rewards' or successes. When it is pointed out that they are not enjoying these reward or successes, it is usually a shock, because the culture at large has encouraged these efforts to obtain rewards. Of course, at times, reward and enjoyment are the same thing, for instance a favorite food can both be a reward and a source of completed pleasure. Largely however, the indirect search for love leads to incredible chains of rewards in which the actuality of pleasure or love is lost.

Our larger culture tends to see the way to obtain and keep good feelings is to deliberately do things to affect the brain. In this, it is addiction-centric.

Often the 'helping professions' attempt to solve 'problem' behavior in children or adults with reward systems. These almost invariably fail. Reward and punishment can fine tune behavior for basically satisfied people, but not in cases of pleasurelessness. Pleasure comes from the life of the body and felt relationship with others. To restore relationships it is necessary to understand that good things come from a relationship independent of being earned or manipulated. When dropped upon a discouraged or distrusting person, reward systems undermine relationship further. Building relationships and sources of pleasure is not an instant process, but it alone will restore pro-social and cooperative behavior.

Explanation Abuse

Formulating an explanation for something that has happened releases dopamine in the brain also. This makes some sense, if for instance, explanation of why a bridge fell down results in the building of a new solid bridge and a more enjoyable river crossing experience. The explanation then represents an real opportunity for future comfort or ease. But the brain does not distinguish any explanation from another. Impractical or inaccurate explanations, or explanations that are speculative and top of the head all release some dopamine. Possible explanations are infinite, Even explanations of failure or inability to do something release dopamine. That means that giving up quickly on something, with an explanation, provides immediate comfort, while struggling a bit with a learning period only provides a possibility of satisfaction in the unknown future but without the instant gratification of explanation. Quick, shallow explanations tend to become very habit forming. Over-intellectualism may be a form of explanation abuse.

Starting Abuse

The start of anything new can be a goldmine of reward for the brain, because possibilities seem endless and have not been challenged by reality. Often the first things done are easy things. A pattern can easily arise in which many things are taken up, and none finished. This is not premeditated, but easily becomes a habit. Over time, however, the practicalness of an undertaking can drop out of consideration, and many impractical things are taken up just to be 'stripped' of the early thrill.