Living

Do go-getters and couch potatoes experience pleasure differently?

Why are some people driven to succeed, their foot firmly applied to the gas pedal of life, while others allow their foot to hover over the brake, taking the scenic route? The difference between A-type overachievers and those mellow ambassadors for the phrase “chillax” may come down to brain chemistry, or more specifically, how the brain experiences pleasure.

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Why are some people driven to succeed, their foot firmly applied to the gas pedal of life, while others allow their foot to hover over the brake, taking the scenic route through time? 

The difference between A-type overachievers and those mellow ambassadors for the phrase “chillax” may come down to brain chemistry, or more specifically, how the brain experiences pleasure suggests a recent study (via Time.com). 

Neuroscientists at Vanderbilt University in Nashville used brain-imaging technology to observe how the brains of the ambitious may or may not operate differently from those of the less ambitious.  In particular, the researchers were interested in seeing how the brains of both groups dealt with the chemical dopamine. 

Dopamine is a brain chemical that influences behaviour. Often considered the “pleasure” chemical, it’s a powerful, primitive motivator. For example, if we associate chocolate cake with pleasure or “reward,” our brains may flood with dopamine as we stand in front of the window of our local bakery. That urge then sends us through the bakery door in search of that cake.

The same is true when it comes to the rewards we associate with work, apparently. As Time.com writer Maia Szalavitz points out, previous studies have suggested that when dopamine levels are lowered, people show less inclination to work. 

For the study, the researchers observed the brains of 25 young adults. The adults were asked to play a game for monetary reward. The catch: some of the aspects of the game were considered “easy” while others were “hard”. But the harder the task, the bigger the financial gain. 

The researchers observed that the brains of those who chose the harder tasks were flooded with dopamine in the reward and planning areas of the brain, while those who chose the easy tasks more frequently showed higher responsiveness in the area of the brain that focuses on physical exertion and bodily states. Basically, the people who chose the easier tasks appeared to naturally monitor the strains associated with making an effort rather than experiencing associating the effort with pleasure. 

As Szalavitz points out, the study doesn’t suggest that these responses are genetic or set in stone, however. Whether or not people can alter their responses to working “hard” remains to be seen. But the findings do offer both slackers and overachievers something to think about. 

For overachievers, it’s clear that working hard has the potential to become addictive, while for the slackers, thinking too much about an aching back or grumbling tummy may get in the way of the achievement of greater goals.