Be Less Controlled by Rewards with Mindfulness

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Mindfulness should no longer be considered a “nice-to-have.” It’s a “must-have”:  a way to keep our brains healthy, to support self-regulation and effective decision-making capabilities, and to protect ourselves from toxic stress. It can be integrated into one’s religious or spiritual life, or practiced as a form of secular mental training.  When we take a seat, take a breath, and commit to being mindful, particularly when we gather with others who are doing the same, we have the potential to be changed.” – Christina Congleton


Behavioral Psychology teaches that we are slaves to rewards and punishers. The Law of Effect states that we tend to repeat actions that are followed by a pleasing state of affairs (rewards) and are less likely to repeat actions that are followed by an aversive state of affairs (punishers). It is evident that people respond this way. It can be healthy and adaptive as long as it is kept under reasonable restraints and at moderate levels.


People who are too attached to rewards such as money are never really satisfied no matter how much they acquire. They are on what is called the “hedonic treadmill” where reward produces brief happiness but once it diminishes the individual becomes unhappy and works even harder for more reward and on and on it goes.  On the other hand, a lack of responsiveness to rewards and punishers is a hallmark of depression. But, the ability to delay reward is a characteristic of very successful people. It has been shown that, demonstrating the ability in early childhood to postpone reward to get a bigger reward later, predicts success in adult life.


So, it is crucial for well-being that we learn moderation and control of our responses to rewards and punishers. Mindfulness training has been shown to assist in restraining impulsivity and improving response inhibition and delay of gratification. In today’s Research News article “Adaptive neural reward processing during anticipation and receipt of monetary rewards in mindfulness meditators.” See:

or below or view the full text of the study at:

Kirk and colleagues investigate the effect of mindfulness on reward delay and the neural circuits involved. They compared the neural responses of experienced meditators vs. meditation naive participants to a monetary incentive delay task. To be successful in this task in earning money or preventing monetary loss the participant has to withhold responding until signaled. During the performance of this task the participants had their brain activity recorded with magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI).


They did not find a difference in the groups in performance of the monetary incentive delay task. There were, however, significant differences in brain activation between the groups. In anticipation of rewards the experienced meditators had significantly reduced activity in the dorsal striatum and increased activity in the posterior insula. When the experienced meditators received a reward they had significantly less activation of the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex than the controls.


The results suggest that the experienced meditators are less activated during reward anticipation in the striatum which has been shown to be activated during reward anticipation. This suggests that the meditators have a moderated response to the thought of attaining a reward. They also appear to be more in touch with their internal feelings during reward anticipation as they had increased activation during reward anticipation of the posterior insula which is known to be involved in the processing of internal sensations. The experienced meditators also appear to have a reduced valuation of the reward during reward receipt as suggested by the reduced activation of the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex that has been shown to be involved in valuing reward magnitude.


The results thus suggest that meditation practice alters the brain producing more moderate response to the anticipation and presentation of reward and producing greater sensitivity to their internal state. Both of these modifications would be expected to make meditators better at keeping rewards and punishers in perspective, not being taken away on the “hedonic treadmill,” and being better able to delay gratification. This would in turn predict greater success in life as a results of meditation practice.


So, be less controlled by rewards with mindfulness.


“Meditation gives you the wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind can exaggerate the severity of a setback, and resist getting drawn back into the abyss.” — Richie Davidson


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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Study Summary

Kirk, U., Brown, K. W., & Downar, J. (2015). Adaptive neural reward processing during anticipation and receipt of monetary rewards in mindfulness meditators. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(5), 752–759.



Reward seeking is ubiquitous and adaptive in humans. But excessive reward seeking behavior, such as chasing monetary rewards, may lead to diminished subjective well-being. This study examined whether individuals trained in mindfulness meditation show neural evidence of lower susceptibility to monetary rewards. Seventy-eight participants (34 meditators, 44 matched controls) completed the monetary incentive delay task while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging. The groups performed equally on the task, but meditators showed lower neural activations in the caudate nucleus during reward anticipation, and elevated bilateral posterior insula activation during reward anticipation. Meditators also evidenced reduced activations in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex during reward receipt compared with controls. Connectivity parameters between the right caudate and bilateral anterior insula were attenuated in meditators during incentive anticipation. In summary, brain regions involved in reward processing—both during reward anticipation and receipt of reward—responded differently in mindfulness meditators than in nonmeditators, indicating that the former are less susceptible to monetary incentives.


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