A ground-breaking research in the field of neuroscience offers an in-depth analysis of the brain's reward system, highlighting its influence on the decision-making process.
The study encompasses three decades of investigation into the role of dopamine in everyday life choices and shows how the brain perceives different options, prioritizing those which prompt a better reward.
For their outstanding merits, Professors Wolfram Schultz, Peter Dayan, and Ray Dolan received this year's Brain Prize, in the sum of 1 million euros (over $1.05 million).
Granted by the Danish Lundbeck Foundation, this award is one of the most prestigious accolades in neuroscience.
How The Brain's Reward System Works
Focused on the brain's "reward center" and the way it shapes our motivation and feelings of happiness and pleasure, the study revealed how much of the decision-making process relies on dopamine.
Also known as the "happiness hormone," dopamine plays an exponential part in determining which choices are more appealing. When having to decide between different courses of action, goals to set, or objects to purchase, this brain chemical helps us assess options and rank them according to how much satisfaction we can anticipate to generate.
Dopamine regulates how we optimize choices, explains Professor Dayan of the University College London. The chemical triggers a specific set of neurons, which activates whenever there is the prospect of a reward.
In other words, we choose what the brain perceives to be more rewarding, and, according to Professor Schulz, from the Cambridge University, reward is essential to survival.
Since humans, just like animals, need to learn to direct their decisions and actions toward outcomes that will satisfy their needs and keep them away from danger, more reward equals "a higher chance of survival."
Eventually, the happiness hormone wires the brain to respond even in the anticipation of satisfaction, helping it learn to predict future rewards and making us want to repeat the same behavior to ensure more satisfaction.
"This is the biological process that makes us want to buy a bigger car or house, or be promoted at work," comments Schultz.
Dopamine Applications In Modifying Toxic Behaviors
Since this chemical makes the brain associate certain types of actions with pleasure, its effects may be used to curb addictions and recondition negative behaviors.
The "reward system" could help the brain reprogram toxic behaviors by drawing reward from something less harmful to the body. This could make people reevaluate the level of satisfaction gained from a toxic behavior, such as compulsive eating or smoking, possibly resulting in the correction of those behaviors.
Recalibrating what we perceive as rewarding could help those who struggle with weight gain due to overeating. To remove the temptation of junk food, one way to go could be storing healthy snacks in colorful, attractive packages, to signal the brain that eating them will make us happy. Conversely, learning to associate unhealthy food with negative feelings or sensations could educate the appetite and decrease the level of satisfaction they signal to the brain.
"The implications of these discoveries are extremely wide-ranging, in fields as diverse as economics, social science, drug addiction and psychiatry," said Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, member of the Brain Prize selection committee.
The study also shows immense applications in the field of behavioral economics, by helping determine how people act in business situations, and in dealing with addiction, such as gambling or drug use, as well as the treatment of schizophrenia.