The Desire System
Also Known as:
The Dopaminergic Reward System
The system responsible for the experience of desire is complex, powerful, and completely fascinating. Desire is also often misunderstood. Desire is not the enemy of health it is perceived to be.
Scientifically the system responsible for desire is known as the dopaminergic reward system. This system is one of the oldest and most important systems in your brain. It serves a foundational role. It helps you identify and learn what in your environment is worth pursuing.
For our ancestors this system was very good at identifying what in the environment is healthy.
This system is what motivated our ancestors to pursue what they needed. In the modern era, however, desire has become more complex. That's because this system is getting confused. In this brief article, we'll introduce you to the science behind how desire works and what you can do to retrain it.
Dopamine and Habit Formation
The Habit Loop
The dopaminergic reward system -the system responsible for desire- is responsible for most goal-directed human behavior. This is because this system is responsible for habit formation. Habits are learned in this system.
The way a habit is learned is that whenever you experience a reward, a neurotransmitter known as dopamine is released. This causes the learning of two things. First, it causes you to learn the importance of the cue that predicts the reward. Second, it causes you to learn the action/routine that leads to the reward.
This dopamine-facilitated learning happens in all vertebrate species, including humans. Yes, this type of learning happens in you too. Habits are learned in the dopaminergic reward system. In the scientific literature, this loop is known as the 'Habit Loop.'
The Desire-Pleasure-Learning Loop
Habits and Desire
Sometimes we think of habits as something boring. In reality, they're far from it. Habits are about desire and where you get your reward/pleasure from. Whether you realize it or not you are constantly chasing pleasure. That is how you are built to behave. That's why habits are so powerful.
This can cause problems. Someone with very unhealthy habits is chasing pleasure. For instance, someone with a drug 'habit' is constantly chasing that substance because of the reward it gives them.
What is however underappreciated, is that people with healthy habits are pursuing pleasure and rewards just like everyone else. Activities like dancing, eating delicious food, going on nature walks, hanging out with friends and many more activities cause reward and release dopamine. The difference for someone with healthy habits is that for them what causes them reward/pleasure is connected to what is healthy.
At the Desire Clinic we don't think of this loop as the 'Habit Loop.' Rather, we prefer thinking of it as the 'Desire-Pleasure-Learning' loop. This is the same loop, this new name however much better describes what a habit actually feels like.
A Complex System
This System is Tied Into Many Other Systems
Desire and health are intimately linked. Your desire system is one of the oldest systems in your brain. Evolutionarily speaking this is the system that guided us to health. This system is directly tied to many internal and external sensors that help you detect what you need to do for your health. It is constantly assessing both your internal and external environment.
This system is hooked up to every system in your body that is important for health. This system is responsible for hunger, for thirst, for the experience of deliciousness, for your motivation levels and much more. This system is constantly assessing what you need to do for your health, and actively encouring you to do what is best for you. Sometimes this system makes mistakes, but more often than not, it is more brilliant than we consciously realize.
At the Desire Clinic, we're humbled by the complexity of this system and are constantly learning more about the science behind how this all works.
How To Retrain Your Desire
We keep it simple, while appreciating the full complexity.
The basic way to retrain your desire is to reconnect pleasure/reward and health. Frankly, at the Desire Clinic, we're astonished how often this link is missed.
For instance, there are numerous food guides out there. To our knowledge, not one focuses on your senses and deliciousness as a source of information. You literally have thousands of sensors that can detect what is in your food. These sensors are tied to motivation through the experience of deliciousness. These sensors can detect nutrition. For some reason, the experts telling you what to eat often don't factor in how you learn. They also ignore what motivates you. They ignore deliciousness.
Food is only one area in health where in the conventional model we don't talk about pleasure and desire. For reasons that we at the Desire Clinic do not fully understand, desire is ignored in most areas of health. You literally already have a system that is there to try and help you discover what is good for you. There is lots of science to understand how this system works. Yet somehow when it comes to giving health advice, this system is just not talked about. To us, that doesn't make any sense.
This system is responsible for most goal-directed behavior. Understanding how it works, leads to all kinds of ways of working with it to make changes in your life that lead to durable habit formation. To get there though, we need to at the very least be comfortable talking about the science of pleasure and desire. Your health depends on it!
Want to Learn More About the Science Behind Pleasure and Desire?
We have a whole host of resources that ties this basic science into the many systems you have to identify what is healthy. The science of how you work is fascinating! We love understanding and communicating that science.