The Actual Neurological Reason Why Positive Reinforcement Works

The Neurological Explanation Behind Why Positive Reinforcement Works Better Than Negative Consequences

With 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.

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.

There are hundreds of millions of pathways in our nervous system. Every pathway in our brain is associated with a particular action, behavior, thought, or experience.  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 behavior will become natural to you.

We can literally rewire our brains with repeated and direct attention. It’s like beating down a path in the forest.

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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. The reward pathway is connected to the areas of the brain that control behavior and memory.

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 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. Then, the reward pathway is triggered and the neural pathway for the behavior/action/thought that just happened becomes strengthened. This is why positive reinforcement works.

Remember This

Neurons that fire together, wire together.

Donald Hebb

Fundamentally, this is why behaviors that occur at the same time as the reward pathway is activated are far more likely to reoccur. This is also why you always hear people say “don’t reward bad behavior” 

Reliability & Speed of Reinforcement

The key ingredients to making positive reinforcement work are 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 behavior – we must make sure the neurons in the reward pathway and in the behavior 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 behavior 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 behavior you encourage the strengthening of the pathway for that behavior by also triggering the reward pathway. This results in the brain finding this more pleasurable than the old behavior you’re trying to stop – it naturally wants to do the positive behavior more often.  Over time the pathway to the positive behavior becomes stronger and easier for the brain to do, and the pathway for the negative behavior weakens.

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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 behaviors and use positive reinforcement to replace them.

1. Set a goal

What is the behavior you want to replace? What do you want to teach your child to do instead? For a replacement behavior to be successful it needs to serve the same function as the current behavior.

2. Recognize triggers  

What triggers make the negative behavior 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. You can download this printable positive reinforcement tracker, too.

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. Your 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 the same 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 behavior.

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 neurotypical peers.

Our body uses omega-3 fatty acids to produce dopamine and consuming enough omega-3 is essential because our body cannot create it on its own. Click here to read in-depth about the connection between dopamine and omega-3 fatty acids. If your child doesn’t consume enough omega-3 in their normal daily diet, they may benefit significantly from an omega-3 supplement.

Why Positive Reinforcement Works Better Than Negative Consequences

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