1.3.4 Natural Versus Unnatural Rewards

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Things which human beings experience as highly rewarding are usually things which were present in our ancestral environment. We call these things “natural rewards”.

  • Calorie dense foods (such as sweet or fatty foods)
  • Sex and nurturing (or other useful social interactions)
  • Resource gathering & status. (Winning in competition, being high up in the pecking order, or getting your hands on useful ‘things’)

There are however, a long list of unnatural rewards which have also managed to ‘hack’ our brain’s reward circuit. Below are the most common examples of unnatural rewards that addicted people use. You will notice that they are a kind of fake substitute for natural rewards;

  • Drugs (are a kind of fake ‘resource’ or energy source)
  • Gambling (wins)
  • Gaming (wins)
  • Smartphones + social media (likes)
  • Pornography (sex)
  • Money (status)

Dopamine rewards us for engaging in these behaviors regardless of whether they are natural or unnatural. Our brain’s dopamine system can’t tell the difference between pornography and sex, or indeed, between candy and heroin. All it cares about is the dopamine. If a thing gives us energy, status, resources, calories, love or sex then it’s worth noticing in evolutionary terms. Dopamine reinforces survival behavior.