The brain is certainly a busy little organ. It's tireless, never takes a vacation and has work to do 24/7. But it knows fun and pleasure when it sees it. When an external stimulus, such as a particular food or a potential mate, has been encountered and deemed a pleasurable sensation, the cerebral cortex signals the ventral tegmental area of the brain to release the chemical dopamine into the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus acumens. These latter regions of the brain make up the reward system. These areas work in conjunction to deliver a sense of pleasure and focus the attention of the individual so that he or she learns to repeat the behavior once more. Researchers theorize that this is how behaviors necessary for survival, such as reproduction and eating, are learned.
Interestingly, the reward center doesn't kick into gear only when we eat something delicious or meet a potential new love interest. It turns out that generosity can be quite a kick too! MRI studies have revealed that when we perform an act of kindness, the brain's reward center is aroused and we experience feelings of pleasure. The brain is flooded with happiness-inducing dopamine whenever we give a homeless person some money or help out someone in need. A study conducted in 2008 confirmed the belief that spending money on other people can result in elevated feelings of happiness for the giver [source: Goldberg].
It might not be all fun and games for the reward center, however. A recent study came to a startling conclusion: The brain's reward center responds to bad experiences as well as good. Doing something scary -- or even merely thinking about it -- can trigger a release of dopamine. In essence, dopamine isn't just triggered by "fun" and pleasurable events. Negative things can do the trick too [source: Science Daily].
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