Old habits die hard. However, turning those activities you’d rather avoid into a fun experience can be enough to nudge us in the right direction of positive behaviour change!
Unfortunately, human brains like to be lazy and will normally seek the path of least effort, relying on previously formed habitual behaviours. But how does fun work to shift us out of this pattern? Fun activates the reward centres in our brain, including the ventral striatum (nucleus acumbens), orbitofrontal cortex, and amygdala. Each time we engage in ‘fun’, our brain releases dopamine through our reward centres, ‘stamping in’ an association between the activity and a pleasurable feeling. Psychologists call this positive reinforcement. The other element that makes fun work is engagement. The more engaged we are in an activity, the more likely the ’brain stamping’ will have a long-lasting effect. The positive experience of engagement facilitates and strengthens neuronal associations between the activity and reward centres, leading to the formation of long-term memories and habits.
An example of fun in action. The 2009/10 winner of Voltzwagon’s Fun Theory Award
The same neural processes related to reward reinforcement and engagement underlie the powerful effect of games. This may be why the games industry has grown more than 112% since 2006, why two-thirds of Australian play video games with just under half of these being female (IEAA for their Interactive Australia 2009 report), and why game players spend an average of 18 hours a week playing games. In games, the dopamine-reward system is particularly activated when people are aware that have made a successful prediction, choice or action. So solving a puzzle or completing a sequence of movements when playing a song on a piano provides us with feedback on our actions, rewarding our typically lazy brains and promoting physical or mental effort.
Have a think about how you can introduce a bit more fun and games into your life!