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The Neuroscience of Patience

Sam Brinson
Connecting the Dots
3 min readDec 10, 2020

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Deep inside the brain is a bundle of around 165,000 neurons, called the dorsal raphe nucleus. When prompted into action, the nucleus produces the neurotransmitter serotonin, which acts as a messenger to other areas of the brain. Two areas often in communication with the dorsal raphe nucleus sit just behind your eyes — the medial prefrontal cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex. Together, this communication channel appears responsible for the virtue of patience.

The Path of Serotonin

Past research has found a strong link between serotonin and waiting behaviour. When the dorsal raphe nucleus is stimulated, serotonin floods the system and patience is displayed. In those with low levels of serotonin, impulsive behaviour is the norm. However, this effect appears to be maximised when two features are present — a high probability for a reward, and uncertainty about the timing of that reward.

In a 2018 study, Katsuhiko Miyazaki et al. hypothesised that serotonin plays a role in “resolving trade-offs, not only between immediate and delayed rewards, but also between sensory evidence and subjective confidence.” It could achieve this by influencing our judgements of the likelihood or probability of a reward.

Katsuhiko Miyazaki’s team set out to test the idea. They bred mice with light-sensitive serotonergic neurons…

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Sam Brinson
Connecting the Dots

An emergent property of billions of chaotically firing neurons. Currently thinking about thinking. http://sambrinson.com/