Hearts and Rainbows: The Brain’s Beautifully Imperfect Reward System
By: Lindsay Pearson
I am a professional who has spent the last 12 years immersing myself into the world of early childhood education, honing my skills and focusing all my efforts on helping teachers and caregivers support social-emotional development in early childhood classroom settings. I began this Self-Reg journey wearing my “professional hat”. But what I am discovering as I finish Self-Reg Foundations 1, is that Self-Reg isn’t just about promoting positive relationships in the classroom. It isn’t solely about helping the child co-regulate before he/she can self-regulate. Self-Reg is about seeking to understand the intricacies of being human. I began this journey as a “professional”, but I am discovering that to be the consummate Self-Reg “professional”, we must first put on our “human” hat. We must dive deep to understand the beautifully imperfect systems that drive each and every one of us on a physiological and psychological level.
What is the brain’s reward system and why is it “beautifully imperfect”? In Foundations Module 5: Self-Reg and the Brain’s Reward System, Dr. Shanker and colleagues do a brilliant job of helping the audience understand the complex relationship between our biologically based reward system and our relationship with environmental stimulants such as food. Specifically, we come to understand that this reward system (present at birth) is driven by the relationship between opioids and dopamine. We seek a stimulant that will reduce our stress load. These stimulants often provide a surge of natural opioids that make us “feel good” and decrease stress. The surge of opioids is accompanied by a release of dopamine. This dopamine serves to drive us to get more of what made us “feel good”. The surge of the opioid diminishes, but the dopamine effect does not. Therefore, to get the same surge and feeling of euphoria, we are driven (by dopamine) to take in more and more of the opioid releasing stimulant. As I write this I am thinking of the catchphrase, “Once you pop, you can’t stop”. So true, right?!
I am fascinated by the opioid-dopamine connection. I am floored by the potato chip analogy provided in Module 5. Thinking about something that seems so benign: it’s just a bag of chips, right? Now, I am left thinking about the effect of consistent consumption of this same bag of chips through a physiological lens. Specifically, with regards to opioids and dopamine and physiological responses in the body. For example, how increased sodium levels activate the hypothalamus to flush your system, which may set off a chain reaction of dehydration, varying mineral levels and an exacerbated drain on your pre-frontal cortex. We all know chips aren’t good for you, but we usually think this is more about weight and heart issues. I have NEVER once thought of this type of habitual consumption as creating and causing additional stress by affecting the HPA pathway in my body. Wow!
I have no words that can truly encapsulate the revelation prompted by this module. Luckily, they say a picture is worth a thousand words. The illustration below sums up how I am now viewing the brain’s reward system in all of its imperfect beauty.
To give some background, I usually work in my home office. Today my husband is on a call and I can’t concentrate, so I am working in our dining room (which doubles as an “art area” for our kids). I was sitting here watching all of the Self-Reg videos and at the very end of Module 5, I looked up. The simple act of looking up to process the information prompted me to notice a picture hanging on my wall. A picture that my daughter created at the end of kindergarten last year. It is a drawing of a “body” and has some of the body parts labeled. She coloured the picture in rainbow colours complete with hearts and stars.
This picture has been hanging on my wall for months and months. I love it because it was such a cute lesson and she was so excited about it, but today I am looking at it like I am seeing it for the first time. I look at this picture and I think of the power of the brain-body connection. I zero in on the “brain” and the “stomach” highlighted in her picture and this simple piece of children’s artwork encapsulates everything. The representation of her little rainbow-coloured body…
The coloring and “happy” feeling of the illustration made me think about limbic associations. Perhaps in an effort to feel all “rainbows and hearts” our brain leads us to something that feels good. An instant release of opioids often triggered by an unconscious, but powerful limbic association. Sticking with the chip example, we may know we need to stop, but resisting these associative cravings is just too expensive. So, something that we thought would make us feel all “rainbows and hearts” actually winds up compounding the stress cycle. Fascinating. For me, the concept of “brain-body connection” has taken on a WHOLE new meaning.
This post was written as a reflection to a course module of TMC’s Self-Reg Foundations Program. Learn more about the program here.