Every living organism learns from feedback, every action we take provides some sort of feedback be it a shock, a push back, a bad feeling or a feeling of reward. If the feedback we get from an experience makes us feel bad, then we do all we can not to replicate that feeling, if it makes you feel good (either in the short or long term) then we strive to do it again. Addiction is a form of abnormal learning whereby some people have a greater tendency to becoming hooked on something that makes them feel good. An addiction is not something to be taken lightly, and in its truest sense (and not just a lack of willpower), addiction can be life changing and sometimes, life threatening!
How do we learn from feedback?
This was the subject of a recent study performed at The University of Manchester which saw researchers look into exactly how and why we learn from feedback. One of the main areas of focus seemed to be how the firing of dopamine neurons in response to receiving a reward made us more likely to repeat that action in the future. Associating rewarding outcomes with specific actions has always been key to survival, the Neolithic man would have hunted and gathered to find food, and when they found it the cortex of the brain triggered the release of dopamine, a feel good hormone that programs the individual to perform that action again. Similarly, the cave man would associate a high pitch screeching sound to signify danger, the screech would lead to the sight of a predator that feeds back to the individual to NOT go there again.
What does the science say?
It may not seem like anything new, we already knew that dopamine is the key to feeling good and ready for activity, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that if something felt good, we’re more likely to do it again. However, the interesting thing is that dopamine appears to be the main key to successful learning from feedback, and this is backed by evidence. The release of dopamine during reward is critical in the release of neuronal activity patterns that result in learning, the better these pathways are, the more likely we will learn. So these findings may have positive ramifications for helping people with addictive personalities, whether it mean that scientists dull down the dopamine release during good feelings associated with food (for example), or they increase dopamine release (or dopamine sensitivity) during activities that some people find less rewarding such as exercise or healthy eating. I am just surmising with where this could go, and of course the above aspersions are subjective as many find healthy eating and exercise very gratifying (me included), but as the evidence shows, this is not representative of everybody, and unfortunately those that don’t find these activities rewarding are generally more likely to be overweight or less fit.
So now that scientists appear to know a little more about how we respond to good feedback, and are more likely to repeat positive actions because of the good feelings that follow, who knows where this may lead in the health and fitness industry.
Science Daily, (2015). Computer model explains how animals select actions with rewarding outcomes. Retrieved 7th January, 2015, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150106140754.htm
Kevin N. Gurney, Mark D. Humphries, Peter Redgrave, (2015). A New Framework for Cortico-Striatal Plasticity: Behavioural Theory Meets In Vitro Data at the Reinforcement-Action Interface. PLoS Biology, 13 (1): e1002034 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002034