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Chapter: Medical Physiology: Behavioral and Motivational Mechanisms of the Brain-The Limbic System and the Hypothalamus

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Importance of Reward or Punishment in Behavior

Almost everything that we do is related in some way to reward and punishment.

Importance of Reward or Punishment in Behavior

Almost everything that we do is related in some way to reward and punishment. If we are doing something that is rewarding, we continue to do it; if it is punishing, we cease to do it. Therefore, the reward and punishment centers undoubtedly constitute one of the most important of all the controllers of our bodily activities, our drives, our aversions, our motivations.

Effect of Tranquilizers on the Reward or Punishment Centers.

Administration of a tranquilizer, such as chlorpro-mazine, usually inhibits both the reward and the pun-ishment centers, thereby decreasing the affective reactivity of the animal. Therefore, it is presumed that tranquilizers function in psychotic states by suppress-ing many of the important behavioral areas of the hypothalamus and its associated regions of the limbic brain.

Importance of Reward or Punishment in Learning and Memory—Habituation Versus Reinforcement

Animal experiments have shown that a sensory expe-rience that causes neither reward nor punishment is hardly remembered at all. Electrical recordings from the brain show that a newly experienced sensory stim-ulus almost always excites multiple areas in the cere-bral cortex. But, if the sensory experience does not elicit a sense of either reward or punishment, repeti-tion of the stimulus over and over leads to almost com-plete extinction of the cerebral cortical response. That is, the animal becomes habituated to that specific sensory stimulus and thereafter ignores it.

If the stimulus does cause either reward or punish-ment rather than indifference, the cerebral cortical response becomes progressively more and more intense during repeated stimulation instead of fading away, and the response is said to be reinforced. An animal builds up strong memory traces for sensations that are either rewarding or punishing but, conversely, develops complete habituation to indifferent sensory stimuli.

It is evident that the reward and punishment centers of the limbic system have much to do with selecting the information that we learn, usually throwing away more than 99 per cent of it and selecting less than 1 per cent for retention.

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