Pure Eyes: A Men’s Guide to Sexual Integrity
Chapter 3 – So That’s What’s Going On!
“The Brain’s Reward System”
The brain’s reward system is a handful of di!erent parts that help the brain remember important or pleasurable things for future use or enjoyment. These things could be a type of food, a special event, a certain sensation, a specific person, a particular sexual experience, and so on. While this system has some pretty sophisticated-sounding parts, they are all well worth knowing and remembering.
Dr. Koek offers a quick tour: “What we now understand from careful study with modern neuroimaging methods in human brains as well as from animal studies is that the normal reward system starts with a subcortical connection between a center in the midbrain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA) where dopamine is synthesized and from which it is released with a projection or a transmission or a sending of the dopamine from that area to three major limbic reward system nuclei: the nucleus accumbens, portions of the prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala.”
According to Dr. Koek, that’s “basically it.”
“These structures are deep in the brain,” he added, “they’re not a part of the cerebral cortex [the thinking part of the brain]; they’re subcortical [below the thinking part of the brain], large masses of cells.”
The three areas of the brain to which dopamine is released— the nucleus accumbens, portions of the prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala—are a!ected in di!erent ways by that dopamine release. For example, dopamine release to the nucleus accumbens in the frontal lobe is what causes that experience of pleasure associated with a given reward. Dopamine release to portions of the prefrontal cortex leads to a strengthening of
behavioral circuits required to pursue and obtain a reward. Dopamine release in the amygdala, the portion of the brain that integrates sensory information such as sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste with emotional information, causes us to remember the details of a situation associated with a reward, such as places, people, smells, and such.
“What this [dopamine release] does,” said Dr. Koek, “is kind of imprint in these circuits the ‘rewardingness’ of a particular rewarding experience and kind of make a memory for the visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, and sensory experiences that are associated with getting that rewarding feeling, and also the behaviors required to obtain that reward.”
To clarify: the brain has two parts, the reasoning part (relevant portions of the prefrontal cortex) and the feeling part (the reward system, which was just described above). It is this feeling part of the reward system that helps us define what we like or don’t like, even on a small level. There are millions of preferences built up in our brains throughout our lives by this reward system, one for everything we like or dislike: we like popcorn; we don’t like broccoli; we like the beach but we don’t like the mountains.