Tag Archives: reward

Feeding my brain

A couple of years ago I discovered that there’s a significant relationship between how much I feed my brain and how depressed I get. It’s not given me a total solution to depression, but it has helped. Back in my first marriage I used to get told off a lot for craving novelty and new experiences, and I was put down a lot for not being clever. It took me a while to get past all of that.

Brain feeding is a personal thing. Games don’t really do it for me – once I understand how they work I lose interest in playing them. When how they work is highly visual – as with chess – there’s limits on what my brain can do as well. Many different kinds of intelligence exist, so what’s frustrating for one person can be stimulating for another, and that’s no measure of the intelligence of either person.

I get a lot out of learning new skills. I also benefit from good non-fiction books, documentaries, and deep discussions with people who don’t just argue for the sake of it. I like kicking ideas around in non-competitive ways. I like figuring out how to do things. To my surprise, I benefit a lot from visually rich material. This has become evident in the last year, and informs some of my Netflix watching habits. I don’t think of myself as a visual person, but it turns out that lush and lavish depictions of fantastical settings do really interesting things to my brain.

I’m fascinated by how other people describe their brains – especially what goes on around brain chemistry. I don’t seem to experience reward and pleasure in quite the way other people do. But, really interesting things happen to my brain when I’m excited about ideas and am learning stuff. I don’t function well without a fairly steady supply of things to be excited about.

I’m fortunate in that there are a fair few people who are in my life who share things that feed my brain. Today, via social media I have appreciated art, listened to a lute duet and learned some things about how other people see the world. I’ve got better in recent years at seeing what to dig in with and what to ignore. 

It’s taken me a while to let go of the shame-feelings I was encouraged to have. Yes, I do like novelty. Yes, I do get bored doing the same things over and over. I’m no longer prepared to think that makes me a terrible person. 

The quest for dopamine

Every time I go a round with mental health difficulties, the question of whether I should be on meds comes up. What I really want to do is fix my underlying issues and have the space to do that. For me, seeking a chemical intervention does not feel like doing something that would help me, it feels like being more convenient to everyone else, and that’s part of my fundamental problems in the first place.

I don’t have a great relationship with my own body chemistry. However, if I do the right things around diet and exercise, if there are cat snuggles and I get enough rest, I can make most of it work. I put a fair amount of effort into this sort of thing. However, having poked around online to learn more about what different chemicals do in the brain, I realise that dopamine may be a life-long issue for me. I don’t really experience a feeling of reward. Something happens around 20+ mile walks but I can’t do those much of the time. Still, it means I know I am capable of feeling achievement and reward, so it’s there, I just have to make it happen.

It doesn’t matter what I do or how well I do it – most of the time I feel no sense of achievement. All I can see is where I went wrong, wasn’t good enough, could have been faster, better etc. etc. I work hard, and I get very tired and I mostly just feel useless. This, clearly could be better. I have a pretty good idea how I got like this, and I certainly didn’t do it all by myself. But, how to get out of it?

I’ve got two approaches at the moment. One is to challenge the story that is always running in the background – this is easy, anyone could do it, and most people would do it faster and better than you, what you do isn’t really good enough, you’re barely keeping up when you do manage things… it’s hard to feel any sense of achievement with a background story that reiterates that you’re always falling short anyway. I need to examine my expectations and watch my thoughts around this and pull out the stuff that other people have put in my head.

I need to factor in how hard things are – how much work I’ve done, how ill I’ve been, how fast I really went. Because this does actually matter and I need to measure achievement against my own effort, not against the imaginary average person who is about ten million times better at everything than I am. I’m doing this by paying more attention to my own effort, acknowledging my own challenges, and checking in with people I trust about what they think is normal. It will be a process.

At the end of it, I have no idea if I will be better able to experience feelings of reward and achievement, but I’ll certainly spend less time tripping myself up, and I can pull some of the toxic historical stuff out of my head, at the very least.