Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

I'm Grateful for Dopamine

Temptation is a surge of the chemical that creates joy.

As we begin the season of temptation, it’s useful to appreciate the dopamine that fuels it. Rats ignore a feast in front of them if their dopamine is depleted.They’ll eat the food if you put it in their mouth, but they will not go toward it (or toward mating opportunity) when their dopamine is artificially depleted by experimenters. Without dopamine, we don't care about anything. With dopamine, we move mountains to get at things. 

What turns the dopamine on and off?
In the state of nature, dopamine turns on when you see something that meets your needs. But it's complicated. A lion would starve if it ran after every gazelle. Its dopamine turns on when it sees a gazelle that it has a good shot at. The dopamine revs the lion's engine for the chase. Thus, the same chemical that says, "yay, a reward!" also tells us to invest energy in its pursuit.

Experience tells the lion which gazelle it has a shot at. Your dopamine depends on the pathways you've built from experience. Each release of dopamine builds little bridges between your neurons. That wires you to release more dopamine in response to the same stimulus. These neural pathways build up in youth due to myelin. By the time you're in your 20s, your brain relies on the neural network it has unless something triggers a whole lot of dopamine. Like what? Whatever your brain has already linked to meeting your needs, especially things that meet needs in the state of nature.

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Today we invest energy running after things that don't have obvious survival value. This makes sense when you know that social alliances promote survival in the state of nature. When you see something that can strengthen your social alliances, you get a hit of dopamine.

 “This is gonna be good!” is the feelng dopamine gives you. It stimulates movement toward a thing you want. When I go to a bakery, I enjoy scanning the options, but I usually know right away which one for me. That's dopamine. Yesterday I had the strange experience of seeing nothing that appealed to me when I stood at a cafe counter. I asked the barista for details about the pastries, but no “I want it” feeling came to me. It was awful to hold up the line without a squirt of dopamine to point me to my next step. Dopamine declines with age, so I decided to honor my dopamine instead of seeing it as the enemy.

We all have free choice. We choose to act on our dopamine-fueled impulses or not. Our big cortex is always trying to predict the future. Your brain predicts which option will most enhance your well-being. One option may be accompanied by a nice surge of dopamine while the other is not. The dopamine option feels magnetic, meaningful, true, urgent. In that moment, you can remind yourself that this is just electricity zipping through old neural pathways. If you keep choosing the thing that's good for your long-run well-being, you will eventually build a new pathways to your dopamine.

But it's complicated. Dopamine responds to new rewards, The same-old rewards don't trigger as much. That's why we are always seeking more, and why we need our cortex to weigh the long-run consequences.

I just had a big-round-number birthday. To celebrate, I visited the primates at the Chimpanzee Politics research site. It was the sorriest bunch of chimps I ever saw. They were the same chimps from the 1971 research, which makes them...much older than their life expectancy in the state of nature. They were missing that je ne sais quoi. They were missing dopamine. I am grateful for my dopamine. Sure, it leads us into temptation, but it leads us to enthusiasm as well. The capacity to want has promoted survival for millions of years. Restraining our wants is part of life, but we can honor our inner mammal instead of condemning it.

Much more on dopamine in my book, Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, Endorphin. It shows how to build circuits that trigger more in 45 days, but also explains why our happy chemicals are not meant to surge all the time.

The dopamine chapter in my new book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity, shows how dopamine makes you feel good when your predictions are correct. Even when you predict something bad!

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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