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The Science Behind Behavior Change
Last Updated: 05/06/2011

The science behind behavior change is the story of motivation and habit, which in neuroscience is the story of dopamine receptor activation and the separate story of long term potentiation.

What is dopamine, and how does it get activated?

Dopamine is a chemical in the brain, a neurotransmitter, one of the molecules that takes a message from one neuron in the brain to another. Neurotransmitters open (or close) the gates along the pathways that allow the brain to function in all of its complexity, including problem solving, remembering, breathing and throwing a ball. Dopamine receptors are especially numerous in the centers that give us pleasure. This is not the only function, but when we add dopamine to the brain we get a good feeling out of it. The release of dopamine into the brain increases whenever there is a gap between what is normal (status quo) and what happens. The brain doesn't even require something to actually happen. The anticipation of something is enough to create the gap that increases dopamine levels. So, for example, the feeling we get when we get a raise or solve a difficult problem, and the pleasure of sitting down to a warm meal, a cup of coffee, a piece of chocolate, (insert your own favorites here), all cause an increase in dopamine secretion which gives us that good feeling. When we anticipate something positive such as a gift or reward, we create the gap that causes stimulus to get the same response. Some poeple (about 30% of the population) will require greater stimulus to get the same response. They often either decide it is not worth the effort or they are the one's likely to become addicts. But the vast majority of us get a little dopamine rush from simple things and that is enough to motivate us to repeat the activity (or in the case of anticipation to continue to strive for a goal).

Doesn't the body eventually get used to the activity and eliminate the gap?

The short answer is yes. The long answer related to our program is yes, but not before our goal is met. Our goal is long term potentiation, also known as, increased connectivity, resulting in habit formation. Using the anticipation framework as described above, the children will work at their goals long enough to cause long term pontentiation to occur in the pathways that are related to both the cognitive and the motor patterns of the habit we are working towards. Long term potentiation is the process whereby the synapses, where the neurotransmitters travel, become more easily activated-the gate opens more easily. Thresholds are lowered. It takes less effort to open the gate. A great analogy is a walk in the forest. If we go deep in the forest our path becomes very difficult, even overgrown, and requires work to continue. If this becomes our daily routine, the walk eventually forms a path and it becomes a relatively effortless activity. The pathways in our brain become easy to travel with repetition, just like a path in the forest. This is a path that has experienced long term potentiation.

What does this have to do with exercise, reading, character and so on?

Now the movements, the thoughts and the emotions that once resisted the desired activity become easy and natural. Now the pleasure that occurs due to the activity itself (exercise, reading and so on) can take over as the motivation for what began due to an anticipated reward. A lifelong change has occurred. The student has now formed habits that will carry through the rest of his or her life, habits that study after study suggest are important for the quality of our life. We have created a positive change in behavior, a lasting change in behavior. We have made a difference in the lives of our students, which is why we work with youth in the first place.

Rich Fairbanks

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