Raspberries, Learning, and a Dose of Dopamine

by Jonathan Peters, PhD
Chief Motivation Officer, Sententia Gamification

We LOVE dopamine. The release of this neurochemical in our brains rewards us when we do things that are/should be good for us and/or the passage of our DNA to the next generation. We feel pleasure, for instance, when we see a raspberry because our brain knows that when we eat it, the glucose will give us energy (and it will taste good). Soon afterwards, though, the dopamine drops off, and we desire another berry to get that dopamine dose again. We will even walk back to the berry patch and fight with the stickers to get the next raspberry.

But what is even more interesting is that dopamine appears to be involved in learning and memory.

To exert some control over an uncertain life, dopamine rewards us when we discover information about our environment. After all, when we return to the berry patch next month, we’ll only see a tangle of stickers. Our ancestors needed to learn about seasons so that they would take advantage of the berries when they arrived the next spring. They also needed to remember the location of the patch, and perhaps learn how to cultivate the berries to yield a better crop that was easier to access.

A study by the University of Melbourne last year showed that our brains react the same when we anticipate a physical reward, such as winning a lottery, as when we anticipate new information to solve a puzzle.

In gamification, there is a discussion about the use of extrinsic rewards. Should we, for instance, reward participation with a free lunch, cash, time off from work, or a free parking space? Usually, this discussion centers around the ethics of bribing to get a certain behavior. However, once we realize that the brain fires the same when we give them a raise or more information, we realize that we don’t need those “bribes” to encourage participation… 

…We just need a different approach to the classroom. Because our brains are set-up to reward us for solving problems, instead of giving all the information up front and asking people to regurgitate it in a test, a better approach would be to give your learners a problem, and then slowly reveal information that will help them solve it. Then, every time we give them a clue, their brains will give them a little pop of dopamine. The addictive nature of dopamine will encourage them to keep working on the problem so that they can get another dose of dopamine.

Don’t believe it? Well, this system likely got you to read this article.

You face the problem of creating engaging learning experiences. As you peruse your digital environment, occasionally you discover a little tidbit that helps you solve that problem—not the whole problem, but just enough information to move you a little closer to your goal. Something in this article triggered a nice dopamine pop. And the reason you are still reading is because your brain is basking in the dopamine glow. A few days from now, maybe tomorrow, your brain will cause you to look again for similar information so that you can get a little more dopamine. Thus, you are rewarded as you continue to increase your knowledge. Done this way, learning can be addictive.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is, when we don't get what we want or the information we're expecting isn't delivered we have a negative reaction. The University of Melbourne study also showed that when the anticipated reward or information does not live up to our expectations, our brains experience dysphoria. The same disappointment that our ancestors felt when they returned to the berry patch only to discover that there were no more berries is the same disappointment your learners feel when your program does not deliver the information they were expecting. So, we still have our work cut out for us.

Once we understand the brain’s reward systems, we can work with learners and their brains to not only encourage learning, but perhaps also make it addictive.

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