I received this really interesting question by email last night:

Q:    David, I've been reading about dopamine and reward, and am now thoroughly confused.  In one blog, whose author sounds much like you, I came across this, 

"Everything you want releases dopamine and you want it because it releases dopamine. . . Things are important and valuable only if they activate your dopamine neurons."  

David, you say the same thing, basically.  I don't understand why.  Is this a circular argument--that if it doesn't activate dopamine it won't be important?  Is it the thing that is important, or just the feeling?  And if it's just the feeling, then why do we want to redirect people to things that are important to them?  It's just such a different paradigm than what's important to me doesn't necessarily have to feel good all the time. 

A:  Oh man...you have asked a question which is 40% neurocognitive, 40% philosophical, and 20% theological!  Whatever the "goal" is (relationship, car, athletic victory, the desire to see your foes vanquished) it's really all about the feeling.  Adults have available to them basic and un-nuanced rewards (candy, kissing) as well as finer/nuanced rewards (unity experiences, the thrill of exceeding our previous records, or even schadenfreude - the delight we take in others' foibles or suffering).

And it's always about the feeling.  Nobody wants a hunk of red metal.  They want what they anticipate they will feeeel when they are in that convertible, zipping down the Pacific Coast Highway.  Even (not "even," but "especially") altruism.  We are wired for altruism.  Literally, people engaged in pro-social altruistic behaviors look just the same on brain scans as people who engaged in other types of "pleasant" rewarding activities.  It feels good to be good.

Jonathon Haidt has suggested humans are the "giraffes" of altruism.  Meaning this: some species can engage in cooperative behaviors but humans are the ridiculous over-the-top expression of pro-social capacity.  We have capacity for violence and selfishness (there's genetic advantage in that) but also for kindness and others-directed behaviors (there's group-level genetic advantage in that as well).

Regarding the circularity of the dopamine idea you mentioned in your email.... a thing is rewarding to the extent that it models the basic reward system of the brain.  You remember when you first picked up an iPod or iPhone?  You did not ask to see the owner's manual.  It was just so aMAzingly intuitively designed.  Really really good industrial design is consistent with the way our brains actually work.  These things feeeeel good to use because they are designed with what feeeeels good to humans.  

Likewise a good video game is molded, hand in glove, around the basic dopamine synapse...drip... drip..drip.  Look into someone's eyes after they've been engaged with a video game for 30 minutes. Yikes!   Video games provide immediate multi-sensory reward and mild punishment and get harder ONLY as you get better and they have CLEAR rules and always deliver on expectations.  

Dopamine is, I think, not to be considered the end-goal.  I'd rather not think of it as the neurotransmitter of reward.  Period.  I'd rather think of it as the neurotransmitter of motivation comma dot dot dot ...  That is, dopamine is what pullllls us forward, and forward, it's the reason we get up off the couch and move towwwwwards something.  

If we ever just got rewarded, period.  well that'd just be it.  Period.  But we keep going, on tiny little hits of (subtitute LIFE or MEANING or YESSSSS for "dopamine" here) because the d'word is so boring, but that-which-pulls-us-forward is so not-boring.  It's the ONLY thing.  And at some point you might ask...."what is it exactly that pulls us forward, and towards what, and why, and why is there movement-forward rather than just nothing?"

Granted, sometimes discussions of neurochemistry become mind numbing.  But to me, this is THE central thing, this is jump up and down exciting and important and intimate.

photo: freedom

About the Author

David D. Nowell, Ph.D.

David D. Nowell, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist interested in motivation, focus, and fully-engaged living.

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