We all know from experience that there seems to be a connection between reward and learning. We see it clearly in children; “Honey, you can watch one more hour of TV tonight if you clean your room.” The child now has an incentive to clean his room.
In fact, you can find this reward system used everywhere even in adults’ world. Many companies have a bonus system to motivate employees to work harder. Prizes and awards are given out on just about any skill that can be measured. In short, rewards seem to have a great part in motivating and teaching people.
Why rewards work? Why a person’s behaviour changes when his actions are rewarded? How does this work inside the brain? And above all, how can you use rewards when training people to reinforce learning?
Let’s start with reward seeking behaviour of humans. In 1959 it was discovered that a neurotransmitter called dopamine (DA) is strongly involved in control of movements. Since then studies have been conducted that have identified the critical role of dopamine in the brain reward system (Arias-Carrion and Poppel 2007).
Interestingly, research also shows that dopamine deficiencies can lead to a number of serious diseases such as Parkinson, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
On the other side of the scale, dopamine is also central to drug abuse and addiction.
Some have also associated dopamine with our cognitive development and how we managed to become intelligent as we evolved (Previc 1999).
With so much significance, let’s see how dopamine can relate to learning and how we can take advantage of what it offers.