May 15, 2024

The Neuroscience of “Should”: Resetting Expectations

BY Marc Mathys
In our daily lives, the word “should” often sneaks into our thoughts and conversations. “I should exercise more,” “I should be more productive,” or “I should call my parents.” But what does “should” really mean through the lens of neuroscience? Let’s dive into the science behind this simple yet powerful word and explore how it shapes our behaviors and mental states.
 The  Power of “Should” 
When we say “should,” we’re usually expressing an expectation, either from ourselves or society. Neuroscientifically, expectations are closely tied to our brain’s reward system, particularly involving the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is often dubbed the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, but it’s more accurately described as the “motivation” molecule. 
Expectation vs. Reality 
Our brain constantly predicts outcomes based on previous experiences. When reality aligns with our expectations, dopamine levels rise, making us feel satisfied and motivated. Conversely, when there’s a mismatch, we experience a dip in dopamine, leading to feelings of disappointment or frustration. The word “should” sets up these expectations, and failing to meet them can trigger this dopamine dip, affecting our mood and motivation. 
The Role of the Prefrontal Cortex 
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the brain region responsible for decision-making, planning, and self-regulation. When we think in terms of “should,” we’re engaging our PFC to evaluate our actions against our goals and societal norms. However, an overload of “shoulds” can lead to cognitive dissonance, where our thoughts and actions are out of sync, causing stress and anxiety. 
Resetting “Should” 
To leverage neuroscience for a healthier mindset, we can reframe “should” statements into more positive, actionable thoughts. For instance, instead of saying, “I should exercise more,” try “I will exercise because it makes me feel good.” This slight shift engages the brain’s reward system more effectively, fostering a positive feedback loop. 
 Understanding the neuroscience behind “should” can help us manage our expectations and mental well-being better. By resetting our inner dialogue and setting realistic goals, we can create a more positive, motivated, and less stressful life.





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Hello I’m Marc the creator of the Reset-it program and a TedX speaker.


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