Shopping and the Brain


The areas of the brain that are involved in shopping are consistent with the diverse feelings evoked by shopping.

Shopping is a basic task that just about everyone needs to do once in a while. But in addition to the fundamental practicality of shopping, which is a useful and necessary activity, shopping can also be satisfying, enjoyable, miserable, or even addictive.

Shopping and the Brain

The act of shopping, as it turns out, activates specific regions of the brain. Some of these regions provide positive feedback to bring about a sense of happiness, while others actually trigger a sense of pain and displeasure. Yet, as with many activities that induce pleasant feelings, studies show that shopping can also become an addiction, largely as a result of the specific regions of brain activation.

The areas of the brain that are involved in shopping are consistent with the diverse feelings evoked by shopping. Metabolic brain alterations induced by shopping include the nucleus accumbens, the insula, and the mesial prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, the nucleus accumbens, which is closely associated with the reward pathway of the brain, is activated upon consideration of a desirable item. The insula, an area often associated with pain and negative emotions, is noted to become activated when the price of an item is considered. And the mesial prefrontal cortex, generally associated with high-level problem solving, is activated during the deliberation of the value of the item in comparison to its price.

An efficient and rapid back and forth alteration between reward anticipation, pain, and mathematical thinking in the context of shopping seems to be a general commonality among humans. But not all humans think about shopping in the same way. It may very well be that the degree to which each area of the brain is activated during shopping and purchasing activities can vary from person to person. For instance, individuals who are especially stingy may experience a greater degree of insular activation, while individuals who frequently use shopping as ‘emotional therapy’ may experience a higher degree of activity in the nucleus accumbens. ‘Smart shoppers’ could have a well-developed mesial prefrontal cortex. And, of course the extent to which each of these areas is activated can vary for an individual depending on factors such as the desirability of item itself, the situation, and the cost.

Pathological Shopping

Is there a way out of pathological shopping behavior? While maladaptive shopping patterns can cause serious life problems, this area has not been very extensively studied and has not been approached medically.

In general, if individuals understand the neurological basis of pathological buying and spending behavior, it can be reassuring. For example, if a person who has difficulty parting with money understands that the reason for the behavior is that shopping over-activates brain’s ‘pain’ response, he or she might be able to develop a healthier approach. Similarly, if someone excessively turns to ‘shopping therapy’ as an emotional outlet, then it is possible to gain better control if he or she is aware that the ‘rush’ is the result of an overactive neurobiological response.

Have you ever considered the metabolic activity of the brain as the source of excessive stinginess or excessive spending?

Reference: Zhao X, et al. Analysis of mental workload in online shopping: are augmented and virtual reality consistent? Front Psychol. 2017 Jan 26.

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