Lorcan Nyhan: Just give us a clear plan so we have the joy of anticipating our reward

22nd Feb 2021
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Originally published in the Sunday Independent

“In 1998, Wolfram Schultz, a neuroscientist with Cambridge University, changed the world’s understanding of pleasure, anticipation and reward.

In a series of experiments, Schultz implanted electrodes into the brains of macaque monkeys, giving him the ability to analyse neurons firing in an area full of dopamine receptors. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter linked to pleasure of all kinds.

A group of these monkeys were then taught to pull a lever when a certain light came on. That action released a reward – a quick hit of sugar-rich fruit juice.

Schultz was seeking to examine how the monkeys’ neural networks reacted to the pleasure the juicy reward brought.

But he eventually noticed something unexpected and game-changing for neurology – the monkeys received their expected hit of dopamine, but not when they got their fruit.

They got their pleasure, instead, when the signal light came on. It wasn’t the taste of the juice their brains reacted to, it was the expectation of it being delivered.

Dopamine is released in anticipation of an event, not during the event itself. The pursuit of pleasure is what brings the rewards.

Schultz’s monkeys give us an insight into one reason this lockdown has hit the morale of the public harder than previous iterations – polling from Ireland Thinks has found that 77pc of people have found the last few months harder on their mental health.”

“Just like all primates, human beings are wired to get much more enjoyment and happiness from anticipation and planning than from any actual event or act. Brian Knutson, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, replicated in humans the effects Schultz found in his studies.

Knutson placed a series of individuals in fMRI brain scanners and asked them to play a simple card game – one with a potential monetary reward.

And then, as they played, his team assessed the blood flow to different areas of the brain, those areas chock-full of dopamine receptors.

He found that, just like the monkeys, dopamine flared not when a monetary award was won, but beforehand when the player started anticipating the possibility of their success.”

“Where humans depart from other primates is our ability to anticipate a far-off reward. It is anticipation and expectation that drives joy, rather than arriving at a moment – the building excitement for a foreign holiday, rather than the beach or tourist attractions themselves.

Whether our plan is for a holiday, a degree or a particular level of fitness, we get pleasure from anticipating that reward.

That’s one reason why this lockdown feels different – no sign yet exists of an end and therefore there’s no realistic scope for anticipation of new joys or rewards.”

“The neurological quirk that sees us rewarded for our anticipation of an event, months or years in advance, means that the progress towards large-scale vaccine roll-out brings great hope – even if the eventual end goal of mass global vaccination is further away than many may have hoped for in the last months of 2020.

The public doesn’t need an immediate reward, or an immediate return to meaningful events, to start feeling positive internal impacts.

Any future public health communication strategy, such as the imminent ‘Living with Covid’ plan, needs to be cognisant of this fact.

A return to loosened restrictions isn’t what’s needed, but rather an honest and realistic idea of what the future may hold as the country hits various vaccine roll-out milestones. The minute that a feasible and safe roadmap can be provided, it has to be – however long that road may be. And its creation should be viewed as a communications imperative, rather than an optional extra.”