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The neuroscience of delayed gratification: how our brains help us look forward to the holidays and a better post-pandemic future.

By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

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In the current climate of pandemic, where lockdowns and limits to our everyday freedoms have become the new-normal, we have had to quickly learn how to delay our gratification.  This means putting off the possibility of enjoying life’s pleasures in the immediate present, in favour of rewards in the future.  The ability of our brain to look to a brighter future has never been more important.  As we look forward to the fun and festivities of the holiday season, it’s good to think about how our brain enables this very human quality of being able to see into our future by planning ahead.  So how do our brains do it, and what happens when it doesn’t do this so well?

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Delayed gratification – also known as temporal discounting or delay discounting – is a process seemingly unique to the human brain.  It involves a psychological skill called working memory – the ability to hold in mind thoughts about the future while ignoring immediate distractions.  It can also be thought of as our ability to imagine things that don’t yet exist, but things that we are looking forward to.  Applying this unique psychological skill to the clear and present danger of the COVID-19 pandemic can usefully help us not to get depressed about losing some of our past freedoms – to visit family and friends, to enjoy going to the shops without a mask, large social get-togethers.  It pays to focus on the future, while washing our hands, socially distancing and wearing our masks, because the pandemic won’t be here forever.  And labs all across the world are creating vaccines that may mean that next year’s holiday season is almost back to normal again. Doesn’t the possibility of a future without pandemic feel good?
The feel-good factor stems from dopamine release in subcortical regions of the brain responsible for motivation and reward.  So, the more we imagine a positive future, the better we feel and the more motivated we are to achieve it, because our brain is literally being bathed in dopamine as it squirts out from the ventral tegmental area when we think positively. 
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The aspects of liking and wanting something are also associated with dopamine, in a subcortical area called the nucleus accumbens, which may have had reduced functioning over the past lockdown periods.  But when we think about the future we like and want, dopamine travels along white matter tracts and is received by areas of the prefrontal cortex – particularly the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – which allows us to hold in mind an image of that better future.  It’s the same process experienced when keeping in mind the images evoked when reading an enjoyable book.  These mental images can remain in mind for a delayed period of time and help us to shape the future we want.  

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When this subcortical dopamine process is too excessive and we cannot exercise restraint over immediate rewards, or if we cannot put off the desire for life to return to normal now, we may experience impulsive behaviours in the present.  For example, the curbs on everyday life experienced during lockdown have been an extremely negative situation for many, with many limits to life enduring post-lockdown to prevent a second wave in South Africa.  There is a motivation to release the tension caused by these frustrating, negative situations, as we see when people become aggressive or break the law.  But the skill is to exercise this unique, human power of being able to imagine a better future, which will ultimately strengthen the cortical and subcortical brain pathways that enable us to cope with uncertainty, however long it lasts.
So, as we approach a slightly different holiday season this year, we must remember to exercise our brain’s working memory processes, so that we will not only feel good in the now, but we will feel good again in the post-pandemic world – and learn that we don’t really need to buy so much toilet paper!  Happy Holidays Harfielders! 
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Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

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