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Bad Boys, Bad Brains

Why your neurons love the unattainable.

A couple of years ago I got invited to write a chapter about the psychology behind the Twilight saga for this book. I scratched my head—how could an obesity scientist with a newly-developed interest neuroscience begin to explain the world’s extraordinary enthusiasm for the story of a teenage girl’s obsession with a dangerously unpredictable 104 year old vampire with bright yellow eyes?

Then I realized a reasonable place to start was probably a brain chemical called dopamine.

Dopamine is mysterious—no one fully understands all the clever things it does. But we do know that a) it’s released in response to rewarding experiences (e.g. eating frozen yogurt with those crunchy chocolate caramel pieces; Edward Cullen’s twinkly smile), and b) it makes us want to do whatever we can to get more of those experiences (e.g. ram-raid Pink Berry; abandon life as human to be painfully transformed into bloodsucking monster).

Interestingly, dopamine also makes an appearance when we see or hear cues telling us that something we previously found rewarding is within reach (e.g. Golden arches on highway billboard; Edward’s car in Bella's driveway)—its effect is to give us a helpful neurochemical nudge to stop what we’re doing and chase after the delight-producing object.

The thing with dopamine, though, is that it's a little...temperamental.

If you overindulge in the reward in question, for instance, less dopamine might be released when you obtain it: it's as if the body has subconsciously learnt that the prize is a dead certainty, and there’s no need for biochemical meddling to promote reward-seeking behavior. There’s evidence this might happen to rats and humans when they eat too many high-calorie foods.

What’s more, if the reward always follows the conditioned cue, then the cue can also become less dopamine—inducing—what’s the point of wasting all that precious motivation potion telling you to pursue a reward when, likely as not, it/he will show up anyway?

Dopamine actually flows much more readily when the rewards are intermittent, e.g. you don’t get to eat a cookie every time you see one; or when you see Edward he's nice to you sometimes…but not always.

Yes, I’m suggesting, reader, that the secret power of Mr. Cullen and his bad boy brethren could be nothing to do with their pretty floppy hair or superhuman abilities. Instead it could be down to something much more simple: their sheer unreliability sets off your dopamine neurons.

So what can one do to avoid plummeting into this chemical trap? Are the dopamine junkies amongst us doomed to fall for bad boys (or girls) who flirt with us one day, then don’t return our calls?

Well hopefully not.

First, there are plenty of other biological things going on when you meet someone. A good squirt of the "cuddle chemical" oxytocin (associated with bonding and romantic attachment) can be an excellent substitute for a dopamine spurt – so you might try canoodling with the nice boy before you write him off.

Second, recognizing one’s unhealthy habits can sometimes help you break them—so if you spot yourself entering a dopamine fugue, try to step back a little. If you’re trapped in the same old relationship pattern and it’s not making you happy, it might be worth trying something different.

Third, why not try harnessing the power of dopamine and using it to your advantage? I don’t mean playing hard to get (although that apparently works for some). I mean that the beauty of dopamine is that it that it doesn’t matter where it comes from, it still makes you want what you associate with it. For example, if you inject a prairie vole’s brain with a drug that enhances dopamine activity, it develops a bond with whomever it happens to be hanging out with at the time.

So if the bad boy’s proving elusive, why not try some novel, rewarding activities with a virtuous one? It might get your neurons firing. He might stick around afterwards. And even if he doesn't, you can be content in the knowledge that you and your misguided dopamine system had a good night out.

(For more rampant speculation about why Bella fancies Edward, check out this YouTube vid).

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