The Actual Neurological Reason Why Positive Reinforcement Works

Why Positive Reinforcement WorksWith an understanding of how the brain functions, it becomes clear why positive reinforcement works, and it’s actually mind blowing. Our brain is an amazing, plastic organ – meaning it is easily shaped and molded.  Knowing how it’s shaped can open up endless possibilities. The brain is shaped and changed through experiences, this is called neuroplasticity.

How The Brain Works

We have around 86 billion neurons in our brain. Our neurons process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. Between each neuron there are small gaps. These are called synapses. Synapses allow information to be passed along from one neuron to the next.

Why Positive Reinforcement Works(Image Source : Khan Academy )

When these neurons communicate with each other, they form neural pathways. Neural pathways connect relatively distant areas of the brain or nervous system through a path of neurons. Every pathway in our brain is associated with a particular action, behaviour, or thought.  Therefore, every time we think, feel, or do something that pathway is strengthened. The stronger a pathway is, the more likely our brain is going to use that pathway again, and again.

This is how habits form, why we create routines and have a tendency do things the same way every time. Our brain finds these things easy to do. New habits can be created by focusing attention on doing something a different way. More and more repetition in doing something the new way will strengthen that pathway. Over time, the old pathway will become weaker and weaker and then the new behaviour will become natural to you. We can literally rewire our brains with repeated and direct attention.

The Mesolimbic Dopamine System

The Mesolimbic Dopamine System is often referred to as the reward pathway.  This pathway automatically encourages us to seek out activities that are essential to human survival. Food and water, shelter, nurturing, warmth, etc. are essential needs.

When the reward pathway is activated, the brain becomes flooded with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter . This means it is a chemical used to carry a message across a synapses, from one neuron to the next, along a pathway.  Dopamine makes us feel good, which strengthens that pathway, making us want to do that activity again to seek that good feeling dopamine rush again.

Positive Reinforcement  feels good, so it causes the brain to release dopamine. The reward pathway is triggered and the neural pathway for the behaviour/action/thought that just happened becomes strengthened. This is why positive reinforcement works.

Reliability & Speed of Reinforcement

The key ingredients to making positive reinforcement work is speed and reliability. We know why positive reinforcement works – because it triggers the reward pathway. But in order to strengthen the pathway for the desired behaviour – we must make sure the neurons in the reward pathway and in the behaviour pathway are firing at the same time. In order to do this, positive reinforcement needs to be fast, and it needs to be reliable.

Ideally the positive reinforcement should occur within 3 seconds of the behaviour you are enforcing. The positive reinforcement should also happen every time the child does what is expected, so that the reward is reliable.

When you quickly and reliably use positive reinforcement for a behaviour you encourage the strengthening of the pathway for that behaviour by also triggering the reward pathway. This results in the brain finding this more pleasurable than the old behaviour you’re trying to stop – it naturally wants to do the positive behaviour more often.  Over time the pathway to the positive behaviour becomes stronger and easier for the brain to do, and the pathway for the negative behaviour weakens.

Create A Plan To Encourage Positive Replacement Behaviours

Now that you know why positive reinforcement works, and understand the basics of neuroplasticity, you can create a plan to target specific behaviours and use positive reinforcement to replace them.

1. Set a goal – What is the behaviour you want to replace? What do you want to teach your child to do instead?

2. Recognize triggers – What triggers make the negative behaviour more likely to occur? How can you avoid or work around these? Hint it may help to have a bigger reward during triggering situations, depending on your goals (bigger reward = more dopamine)

3. Be attentive to your goal – Have your reinforcement ready. Your reinforcement may just be words, or you may use a physical reinforcer, like a jellybean, or smartie for example, or a checkmark on a chart. Have your reinforcer ready to go, in your hand, if it is a physical object. Different children are motivated by different things.

4. Be consistent – The onus is on you to reliably use the reinforcer every time your child does what is expected of them. When you are consistent in using positive reinforcement your child’s brain will know to expect the reward and it will strengthen that pathway.

Why Positive Reinforcement Works Better Than Negative Consequences

Imagine that you are hungry and there are 3 meals in front of you. One is your favorite food, one is a meal that you are indifferent to, and the last one is food you absolutely detest.

The Mesolimbic Dopamine system is naturally going to encourage you to seek food when you feel hungry. But imagine you could make one of two choices : either eat the meal you are indifferent to in order to avoid the meal you hate, or eat your favorite meal.

Naturally, you will choose your favorite meal. This is because it’s more pleasurable, and therefore eating this meal floods your brain with more dopamine. You brain naturally seeks out the most pleasurable experience.

Now, If I took away your favorite meal and you had to pick from the indifferent meal or the detested meal, you are going to pick the indifferent one. But, the brain isn’t getting that flood of dopamine anymore.

A pleasurable experience is more motivating, and creates a stronger neural pathway than avoiding a negative experience does. This is why positive reinforcement works better than negative consequences. Especially, when you are looking to change a behaviour.

Does Your Child Have ADHD?

ADHD is linked to dopamine deficiency. This is why many children with ADHD have difficulty staying motivated when working towards a reward. Their reward pathway doesn’t work as efficiently as that of their neuro typical peers. Our body uses omega-3 fatty acids to produce dopamine and consuming enough omega-3 is essential because our body can not create it on its own. Click here to read in depth about the connection between dopamine and omega-3 here  .

Why Positive Reinforcement Works - Neuroplasticity and Rewiring The Brain .

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7 thoughts on “The Actual Neurological Reason Why Positive Reinforcement Works

  1. Such a great post! I am a firm believer in positive reinforcement. When I taught at Head Start it was often the only way you could get the children to have a good day and also follow the rules. I think everyone just wants to be loved.

  2. Oohh this was really interesting – I learnt a lot! I’ve always known positive reinforcement was good, but never really knew the scientific reasons why.

  3. What a great post!! My son has a touch of ADHD…he is easily distracted and will choose to be silly during these times. I will have to try out positive reinforcement…never knew about the relationship to dopamine. So interesting!

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