In neuroscience, the prevalent theory of desire, motivation, and addiction is based on the concepts of “liking” and “wanting.” A healthy brain desires something or is motivated to do something that leads to a pleasurable reward. In a healthy brain, “wanting” and “liking” are in harmony. However, brain substrates for “wanting” are more broadly distributed and more readily activated than substrates for “liking”; so the harmony can be destroyed.
Behaviors that cause extreme pleasure (e.g., taking drugs, eating sugar, watching porn, playing video games, or gambling) soon sensitize the brain’s reward system so that “wanting” and “liking” disassociate: we want the thing more and more, but enjoy it less and less. Such is the mechanism of addiction. It works because “liking” and “wanting” are psychologically and neurobiologically different functions:
|common notion||positive affect (pleasure)||impulsive will (desire)||rational will (self-discipline*)|
|triggered by||rewarding stimuli (sweet taste, smiling face, sex, money, cocaine, etc.)||cues = perceptual or cognitive reminders of a reward, which may be innate incentive stimuli (e.g., the smell of a pizza), conditioned stimuli (e.g., a notification on the phone), imagined stimuli (e.g., thinking about a sexually attractive person), or motor programs (action salience), even if the reward is no longer valuable||anticipation of pride, based on core values and principles*|
|associated with||specific sites in limbic structures, particularly tiny “hedonic hotspots” of opioid-releasing neurons in the nucleus accumbens||the mesolimbic system, particularly widely distributed dopamine-releasing neurons as well as opioid-releasing neurons in the nucleus accumbens||cortical circuits (executive functions, particularly involving the prefrontal cortex)|
|objectively measured as||affective facial expressions (smiling, licking lips, etc.)||approach behavior and reward consumption (food intake, drug intake, rat pressing lever, etc.)||goal achievement*|
|subjectively experienced as||good feeling or not at all (unconscious affect)||drive, motivation, craving, temptation, etc. or not at all (unconscious desire)||freedom*|
In rats, cue-triggered “wanting” last less than a minute after the cue. Humans, on the other hand, have the terrific ability to keep thinking about the cue even after it is gone, not letting go of it, endlessly stirring up their desire. This is why mindfulness skills and mindcoolness are so important.
In our modern technocapitalist environment, a lack of willpower—not being able to resist, to let go, and to prevent sensitization by moderation—leads to a gaping disassociation between “wanting” and “liking,” to excessive “wanting” without strong “liking,” and thus to addiction, depression, and inner slavery. What can you do about it?
- Practice meditation.
- Know your True Will.
- Read my book Willpower Condensed.
- See a therapist (in case you feel completely out of control).
* The asterisks denote my own theory, which is not part of the mainstream neuroscientific literature, although well compatible with it.
Berridge, K. C. (2009). Wanting and Liking: Observations from the Neuroscience and Psychology Laboratory. Inquiry 52(4), pp. 378-398, doi: 10.1080/00201740903087359.
Berridge, K. C., Robinson, T. E., and Aldridge, J. W. (2009). Dissecting components of reward: ‘liking’, ‘wanting’, and learning. Current Opinion in Pharmacology 9(1), pp. 65-73, doi: 10.1016/j.coph.2008.12.014.
Robinson, M. J., Fischer, A. M., Ahuja, A., Lesser, E. N., Maniates, H. (2016). Roles of “Wanting” and “Liking” in Motivating Behavior: Gambling, Food, and Drug Addictions. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences 27, pp. 105-136, doi: 10.1007/7854_2015_387.
- How Moderation Gives Us Freedom
- How Drugs Impede Self-Mastery
- How to Get Rid of YouTube Addiction
- Ketogenic Freedom or Why I’m on a Keto Diet
- Why I No Longer Take Caffeine Before My Workouts
For a more detailed account of the brain circuits involved in reward and motivation, read this paper by Richard et al. (2013).