Memory, Reward, and Dopamine

Nice review of Dopamine and Adaptive Memory from TICS.

When Princeton student volunteers where told that they would receive a significance monetary reward for some pictures on a computer screen that would follow, their midbrain reward centers and medial temporal lobe became activated in anticipation of the pictures that they would see. Testing the next day showed that the rewarded pictures were better remembered and better associated with their associated context.

It's an interesting review because it ties together data involving episodic / autobiographical / personal memory, novelty, and generalization. In our dyslexia practice, we often see students with a very strong bias toward episodic memory - memory for events that happened at specific times and in specific places.  Many of these students could meet diagnostic criteria for ADD or ADHD; at the same time, they may learn well with novelty and have gifts at "big picture" thinking (mentioned as "generalization" in the paper).

So how to we reconcile these results with anti-reward proponents?

Carol Dweck and Dan Pink have cautioned about perils of rewards, but the distinction may be tasks that particularly work well with rewards are those that have little intrinsic interest or motivation themselves.

For instance, if a child loves playing the piano, don't pay them to practice...just give them plenty of opportunity to play and enjoy their performances. If , however, piano practice for a new student is complete chore, then little rewards and games (novelty) may be that spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down until they master enough that the enjoyment of playing is reward enough.

For the classroom, one implication is that for some students (those that heavily prefer episodic memory, for instance), engagement, novelty, and rewards may be educational necessities to maximize student achievement.

Problems and Perils of Praise
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