Television, Video Games and Other Stimuli That Hijack Your Brain’s Dopamine Reward System

“Direct access from the outside to the brain’s dispenser of pleasure, its reward system, was never intended by nature. It is too dangerous, a circumvention of the evolutionary forged link between work and reward, a key to adaptation.”

This page is a sidebar to my article Personal Development Roadblocks: Pushing Pleasure Buttons. In that article I provide some background about the brain’s pleasure centers and items that naturally stimulate the pleasure centers

In this sidebar, let’s review some items that hijack your brain’s dopamine reward system – and the research that backs it up.

  • Drugs (cocaine, amphetamines) , Tobacco, Alcohol. In Inside The Brain, Ronald Kotulak writes “With astonishing precision, alcohol zips directly to the brains pleasure center.” He then goes on to describe in great detail exactly how alcohol affects our brains to make us feel pleasure, almost as soon as we start drinking.

    Note: I’m not including these three items together as a judgment, I am including them together because these are items that are tied together neatly in a discussion by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. See their article on The Brain’s Drug Reward System. See also this research paper, Alcohol promotes dopamine release in the human nucleus accumbens.

  • Video Games. Research of the pleasure center being stimulated shown in this article, (PDF) Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. Note that the nucleus accumbens (one of the pleasure centers discussed) is in the striatum (where “striatal dopamine” was found to be released). I suspect they worded the title that way since they did not confirm for certain that the dopamine was released by the nucleus accumbens. This one I think is a particular problem. The pleasure centers have been shown to have a role in addiction, and while we do not have any evidence for what was going on in these people’s minds at the time of their death, we do know that there have been some deaths from video game addiction – cases where people went days without food or sleep to play video games.
  • Television. I can’t imagine this is a surprise to anyone. What I found surprising though is it doesn’t appear to even matter what people were watching. According to the article:

    “Rapidly changing images, scenery andevents, and high-fidelity sounds are highly stimulating and extremely interesting. Television [provides] unnatural levels of sensory stimulation. Little in real life is comparable to this. Television may overpay the child for paying attention to it, and in so doing it may physically corrupt the reward system[…].”

    “[A] growing body of empirical evidence is indicating that watching television causes physiological changes, and not for the better. Most of these effects occur irrespective of the [what] people watch[…]. It is the medium, not the message.”

    “[D]opamine is seen as rewarding us for paying attention, especially to things that are novel and stimulating. Screen entertainment causes our brain to release dopamine.”

    – See Visual Voodoo: The Biological Impact of Watching TV.

  • Music. Research has shown increased levels of dopamine, as well as increased activity in the pleasure centers when listening to music.

    “[L]istening to music strongly modulates activity in [the pleasure centers]. […]

    Responses in the [pleasure centers] […] were strongly correlated pointing to an association between dopamine

    release and [the pleasure center’s] response to music.

    Responses in the [pleasure centers] […] were strongly correlated pointing to an association between dopamine release and [the pleasure center’s] response to music.”

    See ( PDF) The rewards of music listening: Response and physiological connectivity of the mesolimbic system.

  • Fast Food (High Fat, High Sugar Foods). I discussed how food stimulates the pleasure centers. High fat, high sugar foods were not a part of our natural environment – fast food is a man-made creation, and since we have not had time to evolve and adjust to this stimuli, they hyperstimulate the pleasure centers. The levels of fat and sugar are so high in these foods that our body does not know how to respond, and so responds with extremely large rewards (based on the extremely large energy content of the food). David A. Kessler discusses this in his book The End of Overeating. There are so many interesting things he discusses, and I won’t go into all of them right now – but I want to single out one section where he discusses how our brains are hyperstimulated by these foods:

    “Just as a compulsive gambler can’t place a single bet and feel satisfied, many people can’t stop after a few bites of hyperpalatable food. […] That’s what the industry has engineered, with food built layer upon layer to stimulate our senses. Foods high in sugar, fat, and salt […] promote more of everything: more arousal, more thoughts of food, more urge to pursue food, more dopamine-stimulated approach behavior […] Hyperpalatable foods are hyperstimulants. And when a stimulant produces a reward, we want more of it
    – Page 141 The End Of Overeating by David A. Kessler

Enjoy this article? You should Tweet This and share it with your friends

We now return you to the article you were previously reading: Personal Development Roadblocks: Pushing Pleasure Buttons.