Throughout each day, most of us probably utilize the miracle that is our brain's reward circuit in a way that helps us work through times that are uncomfortable or times that we are dreading. "Looking forward" to something (an activity, a meal, companionship, a trip, etc.) may feel like the only reason we can tolerate the current set of circumstances (like being at a job that we don't like, spending time with those around whom we feel uncomfortable, long car rides, etc.). "At least when I get done doing this, I will be able to enjoy that!" may be a refrain of continuance throughout the undesired condition. This mechanism serves a great purpose: imagine how many walk-outs, untaught students, overflowing trashcans, and unwashed dishes there would be if it weren't in place!
Part of the reason this little trick works is because of the reward circuit in our brains. Basically, this circuit consists of a set of pathways through which the neurotransmitter dopamine travels - dopamine promotes a sense of desire or drive toward an object of desire/goal. One such pathway is called the Mesolimbic pathway. When expecting a pleasurable stimulus, the dopamine-producing Ventral Tegmental area sends dopamine through this path to various other brain areas including the:
nucleus accumbens (which links the emotional-limbic structures that process emotion with motor structures in the brain thus generating behavioral responses from limbic activity),
amygdala (which plays a major role in emotional learning and memory modification during memory consolidation),
hippocampus (which is responsible for the long-term memory storage of the actual events and circumstances), and
prefrontal cortex (center for executive functioning: "site" of working memory, formal control of decision-making, regulating the body, attuning to others, response flexibility, fear modulation, balancing the emotions, insight, empathy, intuition, morality... higher-order human stuff).
Following this path of "wanting", one can see how this circuit is activated by the expectation of pleasurable experience leading to a release of dopamine to areas responsible for processing experience-dependent emotion and behaviorally responding to stimuli.
We can notice this phenomena in action by observing our ability to withstand difficulty by focusing on the prized desire after the difficulty is endured. What happens, however, if we forget what the object of our desire is while still maintaining the "lift" of expectation? For example, say someone is having a terrible morning at work, but they manage to change their mood by focusing on meeting dear friends he hasn't seen for a long time with his wife that evening. As his day progresses, he still maintains a positive outlook but cannot remember what turned his day around. His mood shifted and then sustained its positive tone even without the stimulus that shifted it. He forgot what he was looking forward to. What is the object of our desire, then?
One answer could be that the change in mood (global emotional condition) is in fact separate from the desire that "caused it". Did the desire cause the change in mental state at all?! If our moods can be malleable to the extent that simply thinking about a future event and then even forgetting about the event is sufficient to transform our emotional state of mind? If it is possible for the mind to have that much control over itself by its control over the reward circuit in the brain, what possibilities are available to us to modify our own minds at will?
In an effort to tap into this ability, experiment a few days this week with the exercise below:
Close your eyes and allow your body to tell you what your emotions are. This takes practice, but you can focus on some key aspects of physiological signs of stress like the tension or relaxation of muscles in the face (forehead, around the eyes, the mastication muscles in the cheeks and around the nose, the jaw), neck, shoulders, hands, stomach, etc. or wherever you know you typically feel stress or tension. An absence of tension or different degrees of tension in these areas can usually give you an idea of your body's emotionally-primed state. You may also focus on your breathing and your heart beat (quicker, shallower breaths and a rapid pulse usually indicate excitement of the sympathetic nervous system - the part of the nervous system that responds to stress).
Take note of what level of negative emotion this quick scan of the body might be indicating and rate your physical stress and emotional distress on a scale of 0 to 10 (0=no stress; 10=heart-exploding panic attack, suicidal depression, or murderous rage). Now try to produce in your mind the expectation of something you LOVE; something that would change your life. Do not visualize a specific object of desire, just focus on the expectation that such a desire would bring. As you focus on that expectation, imagine that that expectation was available to you anytime and anywhere. Imagine that, whatever it is, it would instantly reset your emotional stress level to "0" and shower you with the bliss of total contentment. [This is similar to the imagining of an alleviation of self-suffering which is a major part of Self-Compassion practices - to be addressed in a later post.] Settle into that good feeling of expectation. Try to become intimately familiar with it.
As you open your eyes, reassess your physical stress and emotional distress with the rating scale. If you dropped on the scale, great; if you didn't drop or even went up, continue to play with this or another similar experiment. Try using it when there is something you are looking forward to. Try to amplify the feeling of expected happiness exponentially. Then try it again without the object of desire keeping in mind that your emotions are purposive, so they do not have to change. With practice, however, your response to the emotions you experience can be modified, and there is incredible freedom and control in that choice to respond flexibly. Eventually, with those skillful emotional responses we can begin to see the breath and life of the immediate present moment as the ultimate object of desire. When this shift occurs, there can be decreased difficulty doing the dishes and less woefulness at work.
[For a more scholarly account and more detailed information about the subcortical brain structures involved in the process of "wanting" (being distinct and wholly separable from "liking" or even pleasure itself) along with a very interesting proposed model of viewing reward utility in human psychology involving a subgrouping of predicted utility (expectation of future reward), decision utility (non-hedonic "wanting" as discussed here), experience utility (hedonic "liking"), and remembered utility (reconstructed representation of the hedonic value of a past reward), please visit the "Research" tab on my website and open the article "Decision Utility, The Brain, and Pursuit of Hedonic Goals" by Dr. Kent Berridge and Dr. Wayne Aldridge from the University of Michigan's Psychology Department.]