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.
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?
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.