PreFrontal Nudity

The brain exposed

The Joy of Leftovers

Why Thanksgiving leftovers are so enjoyable to the brain.

Why are Thanksgiving leftovers so delicious? Well, if you want an explanation based on how the flavors are given more time to blend and stuff like that then go check out the food network or something. We talk about the brain here. Thanksgiving leftovers are so delicious because of the brain’s dopamine system. Classically your brain releases dopamine for unexpected rewards, but the dopamine system also gets activated both from the anticipation of pleasurable things and from completing goals.

The classic view of the dopamine system is that it gets activated when we experience surprisingly pleasurable things. The first time you have sex, your first Twix bar, “oh look I found five dollars!”… that kind of thing. The very first time you had Thanksgiving your brain probably released copious amounts of dopamine to all the unexpectedly delicious food. And it’s true that dopamine gets released when we experience unexpected pleasure, but that’s not the whole dopamine story.

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Once you experience a given pleasure the first time, like pumpkin pie with whipped cream, your brain wants you to experience it again. In order to experience that pleasure again it tries to predict it and force your to go after it. So whenever something happens that might suggest pumpkin pie is in your future then the brain releases more dopamine. And that dopamine actually drives your actions towards achieving that same pleasurable result. Yes, part of the reason that Thanksgiving itself is so enjoyable is because we have so much anticipation leading up to it. You release dopamine when you think about coming home for Thanksgiving, and that gets you to buy the plane ticket. And buying the plane ticket home releases more dopamine, and when you land, and when you first smell the turkey in the oven. And all that dopamine drives you towards achieving the originally rewarding result, which is eating the meal itself.

But your brain doesn’t just release dopamine for unexpected pleasures, and for anticipation, it seals the deal by releasing more dopamine when you finish a goal. For example, why are Pringles so addictive? Because once you pop you can’t stop. The dopamine that gets released when you eat a chip drives you to eat another, and the anticipation of more keeps releasing more dopamine, and when you finally finish the whole can even more dopamine gets released. In the case of leftovers dopamine gets released because the goal of the meal is completed.

So Thanksgiving leftovers release dopamine primarily because you can anticipate them. Even while you’re still eating dinner you’re probably anticipating how good it will taste the next day. And on top of that part of your brain won’t be fully satisfied until all the food is gone. Eating the leftovers helps satisfy the requirement that you complete a goal to release more dopamine.

Thanksgiving leftovers are like any good seduction. It is the suggestion of the pleasure to come that makes it all the more satisfying.

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Alex Korb, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA and scientific consultant for BrainSonix Inc. 

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