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February 13th, 2016

“The Spectre of Self-Destruction No. 4”

The Reward/Response Game

I’d like to first explore the reward/response mechanism, the nucleus accumbens (NA), a bit more. The left and right hemispheres of the brain each have their own NA which plays an important role in the cognitive processing of aversion, motivation, pleasure, reward, and reinforcement of learning; hence,  our relationship to addictive processes.[4] When we take drugs or do things which reward novelty, have pleasurable responses, and reward us (to a point) with their repetition, the NA is innervated by dopamine[5]. The NA responds favorably to whole gamut of actions that I talked about earlier – shopping, gambling, sex, porn, drugs, food, TV, you name it! – it’s the whole of our modern culture.

A friend of mine who was doing research at UCLA regarding over-eating and the NA related to me that one of the more astonishing things that they had found is that the NA actually grows in size over time the more we feed it. In a sense, it demands more of whatever the action is that we are engaged in.[6] Other studies have found that chemical inputs – repeated amphetamine usage, for example[7] – causes an increase in dendrite growth as well. As it grows, the signals it releases start to dominate our actions. This is, I imagine, one of the reasons it is difficult to quit compulsive behaviors. The old analogy about “feeding the two wolves” inside seems all the more prescient in this light. The one that we feed is the one that grows and as it grows, it demands more. This makes it much easier to understand how people stay locked in whatever is their reward/response loop.

Many people stop fighting it and find ways to slake it at least in small amounts. They have their afternoon cocktails. They look forward to each new episode of their favorite TV shows hoping for some new shard of novelty. They hit the casino with their friends. They go drinking but just on the weekends. They just go through life and then they die. Having kids, going to church, they say, gave their lives meaning. But the church or the synagogue or the mosque – it’s what someone else has put forth as an end result to life – as a beautiful heavenly goal. It is there, in many ways to slake the deep and burning question we ask: what about deep inside: in the core of our being? Where’s the meaning? What’s the use?

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