I only became interested in mindfulness as it enhances my ability to get insight into reality. It wasn’t to treat a condition such as depression. It wasn’t because I belong to a subculture where mindfulness is considered cool. It was the realisation that constantly being carried away in thought is a way to ignore reality.
It is a well known fact that dopamine (one of the many normal brain chemicals that makes us happy) gets released as soon as we anticipate something good, not when something good actually happens. It really is about the journey, not the destination. The more unpredictable the reward – the more dopamine is released in anticipating it. Robert Sapolsky in Stanford did a lot of interesting commentary on that. Apparently, when you’ve practiced a certain pathway/belief enough, it doesn’t matter how far away into the future the reward is. It doesn’t have to be immediate. He explains how this is the basis of gambling and, half-jokingly, says it may even play a role in how we think about religion!
At one point today, I noticed how I reached for the phone to check Instagram wondering if my friend posted more pictures of her exciting trip through Asia. I felt the rush when I picked up the phone, not when I saw the picture. Mindfulness at work. The other crazy thing I realise about my behaviour is that… the reward isn’t really all that rewarding. I mean, ok, I get to see a picture and vaguely feel connected to my friend.
So what about this theory? Getting carried away in thought – daydreaming – is similar to anticipating something. Whether we are obsessing about a person we have crush on, or worrying about the future – it is a form of anticipating something. Our brains clearly learnt that in the past there was a reward associated with this anticipation – we got to kiss our crush or avoid some fail through worrying about it enough at some point in the past. Furthermore, the reward isn’t predictable – you win some and you lose some. Not every crush is going to result in a wonderful experience and not every bout of worrying is going to result in avoiding peril. It is possible that our favourite day dreams cause a release of dopamine.
Mindfulness prevents getting carried away in thought, thus, I hypothesise that it prevents anticipation – and the accompanying dopamine rush. This is why it feels like more work than sliding into a day dream.
When I put it like that, it makes me realise just how addictive day dreaming is. I mean I kind of knew it already, but this little theory of mine helps me think about how I want to control it – not be controlled by it. Is mindfulness the cure? It is literally the opposite to day dreaming, but I don’t think in and of itself it will help with this particular addiction.
Assuming that everything is a habit – cue, action, reward – mindfulness can be slotted in instead of the day dream. In other words, whatever causes you to day dream (boredom?) has to be caught early, responded to with practicing mindfulness instead of day dreaming – and a chocolate bar, or whatever floats your boat, as a reward to stabilise the habit.
What patterns can you think of where anticipation is everything and the reward is meaningless? Would it be good for you to replace them?