Way back in the 1950’s, scientists performed an experiment in rats that identified certain areas of the brain as the “pleasure and reward” regions. In the study, the rats had electrodes implanted in certain parts of their brains and then had the ability to press a lever bringing stimulation to their brains. The investigators found that the rats would press the lever many more times when the electrodes were in certain areas of the brain as opposed to others. The areas of the brain that were determined to produce the most “pleasure and reward” when stimulated were the mesocortical and mesolimbic regions.
The main neurotransmitter involved in delivering “messages” in these areas is dopamine. This brain chemical is often targeted with medications to treat depression (Bupropion) and treat addictions (Naltrexone). The “high” that cocaine users get is due to tremendous release of dopamine. Additionally, it has been found that even thinking about things that give us pleasure triggers activity in these brain areas and dopamine pathways that may cause us to seek the actual activities/substances that trigger even more desire to engage in those actions.
So, we are not rats with electrodes in our brains triggering stimulation of our pleasure and reward systems. However, we are the most highly intelligent animals in our world with highly advanced technologies at our fingertips (i.e. your laptops, smart phones and Apple watches) that have the capabilities of triggering our pleasure and reward centers immediately. Do you need to wait days for the pictures you took on your Kodak camera to be developed at CVS? Heck no…your camera phone and video provide you immediate access. Do you need to wait days for a letter from your kids to find out how they are doing at college? Heck no…texting, Facetime, e-mails and checking out Facebook will give you immediate updates and contact. Do you need to get out of your house and drive to the mall to buy some new clothes? Heck no…hop on your Amazon account, place your order and know that the package will be on your doorstep the next day.
This constant stimulation of the pleasure and reward centers spills over to the weight control arena. Basically, what do high carb/sugar foods and/or alcohol provide us? The answer is immediate gratification, pleasure and reward for the work we do to “deserve” these great tasting, “feel good” foods and drinks. We are now so used to the dopamine release from the immediate gratification brought to us by “technology” that we are sort of dopamine “junkies” that are compelled to eat/drink those sources that pleasure us immediately yet harm us in the long term.
What is the solution for this problem? I believe that individually, we all need to take a step back and explore our own behavioral patterns as these relate to “pleasure and reward” seeking and see just how much of this is spilling over to our eating/drinking activities. I am not suggesting that we all throw our smart phones out the window or smash them into pieces, but perhaps reduce the amount of screen time, ordering of items or food off of them and otherwise delay to some extent our pleasure and reward activities enabled by technology. This may “re-wire” our brains to some extent to not go after those food/drink sources.
The obesity epidemic is 3X worse now than in the 1950’s, yet the pleasure and reward centers of the brain have always existed. The difference now is the ability to receive much more rapid immediate gratification of those areas. The problem will only get worse as technology advances. Unfortunately, so will our rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and all of the other co-morbidities of poor weight control. Let’s all recognize this and do something about it.