Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dopamine and its relationship to Riding Mistakes

The above diagram shows the major neural pathways in the brain associated with the release of Dopamine.   As part of the reward pathway, nerve cell bodies in the Vental Tegmental Area (VTA) manufacture dopamine which is released in the frontal cortex and nucleus accumbens.  However dopamine asscoiated with motor functions is manufactured by nerve cell bodies in the substantia nigra and released into the striatum.  Diagram and info from Wikipedia


Dr. Janet L. Jones, with a PhD in cognitive science, wrote "Oops!  The Value of Mistakes" in Equus, July 2014, Issue 442, pp. 46-53.  Dr. Jones discusses cognitive science and how it relates to riding.  She makes some interesting points about how dopamine (which affects motor control, nausea, cognition, and learning) affects how we learn from mistakes made in riding.

Positive feedback increases the level of dopamine and negative feedback does just the opposite. First, unknowingly we often strive to improve our performance by seeking positive or negative reinforcement which drives dopamine levels.  

Second, dopamine levels vary by individual.   "People with more dopamine levels usually learn best through positive feedback--praise, success, validation--and often have extroverted personalities.  Their brains are highly sensitive to rewards but relatively indifferent to errors" (p. 52).  This type of rider should pay more attention to errors and apply varied solutions to problems over time.

"People at the other end of the healthy spectrum have less dopamine circulating through their error neurons.  They notice mistakes easily and often learn best by avoiding negative feedback" (p. 53).  This type of rider learns from small errors but fear of failure may make them avoid certain activities. "Instead, these riders should accept errors as blips of information, alter behavior accordingly, and move on."

Since I tend toward the introvert, I may be missing out on some rewarding experiences--both in the equestrian realm and in other aspects of my life, by avoiding even the chance of failure.  Hopefully knowing little bit more about how brain chemistry works, I can push myself past the dislike of committing small errors.

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