What reward does your brain actually seek?

Dopamine Jackpot! Sapolsky on the Science of... by FORAtv

Dopamine does a lot of things, but you're probably most familiar with it as the chemical your brain uses as a sort-of system of in-game gold coins. You earn the reward for certain behaviors, usually "lizard-brain" type stuff—eating a bowl of pudding, for instance, or finally making out with that cute person you've had your eye on. And, as you've probably heard, there's some evidence that we can get addicted to that burst of dopamine, and that's how a nice dessert or an enjoyable crush turns into something like compulsive eating or sex addiction.

Neurologist Robert Sapolsky puts an interesting twist on this old story, though. What if it isn't the burst of dopamine that we get addicted to, but the anticipation of a burst of dopamine? It's a small distinction. But it matters, he says, if our reward system is based less on happiness than on the pursuit of happiness.

For more on this, check out David Bradley's post on this video, which also links back to a more-detailed discussion of the basics of dopamine addiction.


  1. Fascinating. Would be also interesting to see the comparisons in dopamine release between a trained event (as in the video), a semi-trained event (monkey who has seen the light/lever combination only a small number of times before), and a completely random/unexpected event.

  2. Don’t mean to be pejorative, but it seems like every time I read about American psychological research into positive psychology / science of happiness; they seem to conflate pleasure with happiness. Eating a bowl of icecream might make you feel good, but the act in itself cannot create happiness, only pleasure. Whether or not that pleasure increases your happiness, how deeply and how that relates to well being, autonomy etc is surely more important than it’s immediate hedonic impact.

  3. This theory can be proven sans complex primate experimentation.  For those as yet unexposed, turn off your safe filters and go Google around for a fetish referred to alternately as “Teasing and Denial” or, simply, “Orgasm Denial.”  It’s an entire subculture devoted to seeking and holding that penultimate moment of anticipation without crossing the line to release.

  4.  After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.

  5. When cross-referenced with J. Krishnamurti talking of the mind continually seeking the state of ‘becoming’, this is really interesting.

  6. It’s not the anticipation of a burst of dopamine that’s at work, but a release of domanine as a result of the anticipation of a reward. The thesis of the video is that humans are skilled at sustaining dopamine levels, to motivate themselves to do work which doesn’t have a payoff for decades, or even in their lifetimes.

  7. It’s not even a release of dopamine in anticipation of a reward.

    It’s the release of dopamine in response to recognizing a situation that MIGHT lead to a reward if the appropriate action is taken … which is a little more complicated than simple anticipation.

    It makes sense.  There’s no evolutionary advantage to realizing that a reward is coming.  But realizing that a reward MIGHT be coming if you take the right action … that’s the WHOLE POINT of having a brain in the first place!

    (BTW, this dopamine research shows exactly why the current “Gamification” movement is broken.  You don’t make an experience fun by attaching arbitrary rewards or fostering competition.  You make an experience fun through striking the proper balance of comprehensibility, uncertainty, and agency.)

  8. Remember those great Heinz Anticipation commercials? 

    And Carly’s Lyrics? 
    Anticipation is making me late 
    Is keeping me wai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ting

    I don’t think this is strange at all, nor a “small difference”. It’s the anticipation of the reward that most people are after. On rare occasions the reward can be greater than anticipated, like actually winning the lottery. But people who win the lottery, continue to play the lottery. 

  9. The distinction regarding anticipation and the neurobiology of reward is a psychophysical process that’s at the heart of Buddhist psychology.

  10. Interestingly enough I can offer another data point – a fear of something really being the anticipation of it too. You’re not scared of the object of your fear, but of the potential scenarios linked to the object.

    I have always been afraid of needles, but not in the same way as others appear to be – I know people who run at the sight of one or feint after being stabbed with one by a doctor. I, however, hate the build up to the event of having a needle inserted into me, once it’s in I don’t care about it.
    It’s just the *knowledge* that it’s going to hurt that gets me riled up and puts me into a fear response. Even watching someone else being injected causes me to think about the pain involved, forcing me to look the other way so I don’t build those same templates of pain in my mind.

    Likewise, I have identified my fear of heights as being caused by flashes of mental images simulating what it might be like to fall off whatever it is.

    The longer I live, the more I notice that everything I am afraid of is related to either involuntarily simulating the outcomes or recalling past sensations as a result of experience or similar experiences and extrapolating the outcome to the new situation. Essentially, the anticipation of a negative experience.

    Oftentimes I wonder if my consciousness controls my brain, or if it controls my consciousness >.<


    1. “The longer I live, the more I notice that everything I am afraid of is related to either involuntarily simulating the outcomes or recalling past sensations as a result of experience or similar experiences and extrapolating the outcome to the new situation. ”

      Yeah, exactly. It is the fear of the past, of the memory that you are running away from. So what the brain does is it sees the past instead of seeing the now. This is really the key to enlightenment, whatever the hell that means, ha. Really it is something very simple. We run from the pain of the past and run towards the ‘hapiness’ of the past… cause running away from something implies running to something else and all this is in the realm of thought. 

      When the mind is capable of seeing this whole process, it is then seeing, and not anticipating to protect this illusory ‘self’ that it has created which is simply a compilation of things it is running away from (which is same as running to all the things we desire to be, such as pain free, noble, friendly, happy, etc..)

  11. As Neil de Beaudrap mentioned: In the video, Sapolsky is saying that dopamine release IS the anticipation,  not that animals anticipate the dopamine.#correction

    So dopamine->anticipation->motivation
    He also mentions that when the outcome is uncertain, dopamine levels increase, but does not explain that in the way that seems most obvious to me: if a given activity only gets you food half the time, you need to do it twice as much, so you need to be more motivated. 
    Anyone know why he avoided this little hypothesis?

  12. Really interesting. Didn’t see a link to the whole talk on fora or in the article, but I found it on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWZAL64E0DI

  13. In hindu theory, a person is supposed to reach Moksha (not being born again) if you do your duties without the anticipation of  reward (as propounded by KRSNA in Bhagavadgita) So denying dopamine must be the way to moksha or Nirvana!!

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