This Blog is dedicated to the people who live in and around Harfield Village, the articles herein have been written by locals who either work or live in the area. It is run in conjunction with the Harfield Village website and regular Newsletter and is sponsored by Norgarb Properties.
The two sides of the festive period: peace and goodwill versus Frantic Friday when anything but peace prevails! What can neuroscience tell us about compulsive shopping in the festive period and the January sales?
By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.
Impulsivity and compulsivity play a large role in
neuropsychiatric research as they underpin many mental health disorders.Unfortunately, impulsive and compulsive
thoughts and behaviours are also commonly observed throughout the festive
period! Impulsivity is a natural tendency found in all animals that enables the
quick avoidance of danger or threat without too much forethought. However, when
impulsivity becomes excessive it can be harmful to us and to others.Compulsivity on the other hand, is not a
natural tendency.Instead, it is a
maladaptive coping strategy or repetitive behaviour that we learn as a habit to
help lesson tension or dampen negative emotions.And whereas impulsivity is often related to
craving and addictive behaviours – or even violent crime – compulsivity
reflects something we do repetitively that we have learned to associate with
reward. Usually animals and humans only repeat a behaviour if it was previously
pleasurable, or reduced discomfort.By
considering the brain processes of impulsivity and compulsivity during the
festive period, we might be able to improve our behaviour, control our
thoughts, and return to a better sense of peace and goodwill for all!
The tendency to crave and consume (e.g. buy) new products on
offer in the shops, especially during the festive season, is an impulsive trait. Most of us do not need another
new gadget, a larger TV, or a new pair of shoes. Yet, we might have that uncontrollable,
impulsive urge – aroused by the media – to go out and splurge our last
remaining credit on an already over-burdened store or credit card. We know we shouldn’t, and we know we want,
not need. But some of us just cannot
help the urge to buy more and more stuff over the festive period – and beyond!
This is especially true when peer pressure forces us to demonstrate our
elevated social status. We would rather avoid our friends, families and
co-workers looking down on us! The
negative feelings that come with the sense that without the latest gadgets or
clothes we are not good enough, can – we have learned – be easily improved with
a quick trip to the shops! And while the
craving aspect of buying new things is impulsive, the repetitive trips to the
shops that become a habit, are learned and compulsive. Compulsivity means repeating something over
and over – even when it is detrimental (like spending credit when you haven’t
got the cash) – to the point where it is difficult to stop.
Neuroscientists have been able to pinpoint some of the brain
processes involved in the difference between impulsivity – acting
inappropriately withouth much forethought – and compulsivity – repetitive,
habitual responses despite adverse consequences.Areas of the midbrain are typically
over-active when we feel impulsive, including the amygdala,striatum and insular cortex.Interestingly, these brain areas can
sometimes be over-active in people who abuse drugs, gamble, overeat or who
engage in promiscious sexual practices. So one could say that the impulse to
spend more and more money in the shops is a bit like an addiction that has
become uncontrollable.Conversely, when
we act compulsively, our prefrontal cortex is overrun with thoughts about our
habit, be it shopping, dieting, cleaning, or even something healthy like a
sport, hobby or occupation.When we
develop a compulsion, such as spending too much money in the shops on items we
probably don’t need, we are unable to delay the powerful sense that the
immediate reward is much better than a later reward (e.g. saving one’s money
for the future).And usually, after some
time has passed after the compulsive shopping, an overwhelming sense of guilt,
anxiety and negative emotions flood the mind.Then, the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate – midway
towards the front of the prefrontal cortex – becomes activated to try to stop
the conflict in the mind between feeling pleasure from shopping, and feeling
guilty about spending too much money.But the brain doesn’t like to feel guilty or anxious for long.Instead, it tries to find a quick fix to feel
better again!And the impulse to spend
rears its ugly head quite soon, as we have been taught by an ever-stimulating
media that it is good to keep on buying things!
But like an addict – and people who frantically search for
the latest sought-after item – our impulses and learned compulses never satisfy
us for long.We are simply led deeper
and deeper down a spiral of alternating brief periods of reward and
despair.Neuroscientists specialising in
addiction processes understand that it is very difficult – but not impossible –
to rise up from the depths of this spiral.When people hit trock-bottom they may have spent all of their money,
stolen precious items from their families and friends, damaged relationships,
amassed huge amounts of debt, become obese, and perhaps also damaged their
health. But, despite being at rock-bottom, there is a ladder out.Neuroscientists using Pavlovian behaviourism
as a guide, understand that over time habits can be extinguished, and new,
healthier habits can be learned in their place.
With this in mind, we should consider if we really want to
be elbowing our way through raucous, screaming crowds next festive season to buy the latest gadget, item of clothing or food that we don’t really need. And we can try to pay more attention to our
emerging impulses, and decide not to act on them as rampantly. Instead, perhaps we can slow down our
compulsive tendencies to max-out our credit cards, by placing a delay between
stimulus (the bright, exciting advertisements) and potential response (reaching
for our wallet or purse). If we can
achieve this, we might have more money, better health, and more friends to share
the festive period with next year!
Happy Holidays Harfielders!
Dr Samantha Brooks is a neuroscientist at the UCT Department
of Psychiatry and Mental Health, specialising in the neural correlates of
impulse control from eating disorders to addiction.For more information on neuroscience at UCT
and to contact Samantha, see www.drsamanthabrooks.com.