Rat Brain
By Joel F. Wade - November 23, 2012

Some years back, some scientists were experimenting with rats and electrodes. They thought they were going to administer a shock to a particular rat and watch how it behaved in relation to the punishment. But something funny happened. The rat seemed to like the shock. I mean, really, really like it. They were able to get that poor rat to move anywhere they wanted it to around the cage, in pursuit of yet another stimulation to its brain from that electrode.

It was obvious that this was not a punishment for the rat. The scientists assumed, from the strength of the positive reaction, that by accident they had embedded the electrode in an area that stimulated intense pleasure. In subsequent experiments, rats with electrodes located in the same place in their brains would cross an electrified grid in order to reach a bar they could press that would trigger that electrode to fire. They would do that until their paws hurt so much that they couldn't walk anymore.

But this was not about pleasure; this was about desire. It was about the anticipation of relief from stress, and the reward of that relief.

Take a minute to think of a bad habit you have. It may be a food craving that you indulge, an emotional reaction that you find you usually regret, or any habit that goes against your conscious values and priorities.

What do you feel in your body when you think of that urge or craving? Do you feel pleasure? Do you expect to feel pleasure?

I don't know what you feel, of course, but I can guess. There is some degree of tightness, maybe shallower breathing, maybe a tingling that you might associate with mild anxiety or stress.

The expectation of reward that you might feel is another thing. Notice how you actually feel when you eat that piece of candy or light up that cigarette or indulge that impulse. Is it pleasure? Probably not – at least not beyond a very brief moment – it's probably more like the feeling of having scratched an itch, a kind of relief from stress or anxiety or activation, rather than calm or joy or pleasure. You might shortly afterward feel that same tightness, drawing you toward the anticipated reward again.

This is a pattern that may repeat itself over and over, day in and day out. Following this pattern is not an expression of your most important values and priorities. This pattern is your rat brain at work. Like a rat in a cage with an electrode stimulating desire, you go toward the object of your desire with the same intensity that the rat will to press that lever.

The big difference – the absolutely crucial difference – is that we are not rats. But part of our brain can be trained in the same way. The difference is that we can do the training ourselves, with our mind.

When you have an urge to check your e-mail, even though you just checked it, and you have more important things to do, and you know that you waste time checking your e-mail too much – but then you go ahead and check it anyway – you are training your brain. You are telling a part of your brain that this particular behavior is very important for you to continue doing – and your brain complies.

By continuing to do certain behaviors that you know are not great for you to do, you are directing your brain to strengthen those particular neural pathways that will give you first an experience of uncomfortable physical emotional sensations or cravings, which then lead you to perform an unhealthy habit that gives you a momentary relief from those uncomfortable sensations. That relief, however, the reward you were anticipating with such gusto, only lasts for a moment and ultimately you are never really satisfied.

Each time you repeat this cycle you are, in effect, telling your brain, "Yes. Keep doing this. This behavior is important to me."

You are training your brain in the exact same way that those researchers trained their rats. That is not a problem with your brain; your brain is functioning just fine. What is needed in order to overcome bad habits, establish new better habits, or to move strongly toward your consciously valued priorities is for you to take more conscious control of how you train your own brain.

The key to doing this is to pay attention to your emotional and physical sensations. Get to know the mild stress or anxiety, followed by the desire for something that feels like it will relieve that stress or anxiety. Get to know also the feeling of true pleasure or satisfaction, when you work toward your consciously chosen goals, connect with someone you care about, or enjoy a moment of truth, beauty or goodness.

Most importantly, get to know the difference between these two feelings. Doing so will allow you to choose what you want to do more effectively. It will put you in charge of your own brain, rather than being driven, automatically, by that rat-like part of your brain.

You don't need to catch yourself every time you experience this cycle. But begin to notice the cycle. Pay attention to how you feel and what your physical sensations are when you're drawn to perform a rote habit. If it's a good habit that you want to continue, don't worry about it. If it's an urge or a craving for something you wouldn't consciously want to do – if what you feel drawn to do goes against your values or priorities – you might want to decide not to follow that urge or craving.

Each time you follow the urge, it gets stronger. Each time you decide not to follow it, that automatic pathway gets weaker.

My challenge to you this week is to notice your physical and emotional sensations. That's all. Just watch them like you'd watch one of those wildlife shows. You don't have to do anything with what you notice. Notice when you feel the kind of anxiety->momentary reward->more anxiety cycle and then in contrast notice when you feel a desire that draws you to truly good and pleasurable feelings.

Pay attention to how you train your own brain. Then you can decide, with your human mind, what you'd like to do about it.