According to the "anxiety industry," what I call modern media, dopamine, a neurotransmitter in human brains, is at the root of many social problems. In this recent viral video, dopamine is blamed for creating an addiction to technology like smartphones or social media. There’s a group called The Dopamine Project, which promotes “better living through dopamine awareness,” and asserts that “Expectations of scoring dopamine squirts in their brains keep addicts lying, cheating, stealing and craving the next fix.”
Forbes Magazine argued that dopamine was the ultimate cause of America’s “addiction” to guns. People who treat the unrecognized and unsupported concept of behavioral/process addictions commonly claim that dopamine is at the root of many behavioral problems, and that people develop a drug-like tolerance to dopamine, craving more and more. Anti-porn activists claim that dopamine acts as an erotoxin, released when people watch pornography, and causing neurological damage. Pornography is called “Playboy on (Dopamine Draining) Steroids” where dopamine is squirted into the brain with each click to the online world of “dopamine-releasing naked females.” This delightful article calls dopamine the “celebrity” neurotransmitter, referring to it as the Kim Kardashian of neurochemicals. It’s popular right now to blame repetitive behavior problems of any kind on dopamine.
Ahh, if only we didn’t have to deal with the curse of dopamine, what a glorious and problem-free society we would have. Or would we?
Remember that movie Awakenings, with Robert DeNiro, where patients are in long-term catatonic states? And the doctor, based on real-life neurologist Oliver Sacks administers the drug L-Dopa, bringing these folks temporarily back to life and consciousness? L-Dopa is a chemical that becomes dopamine in the body. Without dopamine, our bodies and brains simply wouldn’t work. We’d all be catatonic.
Dopamine is not a “reward” chemical. That’s not actually the way our body uses it. First, like all things in our body, dopamine serves many purposes. It serves as a vasodilator, expanding blood vessels in our body. Loss of dopamine results in Parkinsonian conditions, a degenerative neuromuscular disorder. Most antipsychotic drugs work by inhibiting the function of dopamine, not because its “reward” makes people hallucinate, but because the brains of people with schizophrenia may be overly sensitive to the effects of dopamine. ADHD (Attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder) may involve, in part, decreased dopamine activity, where parts of the brain aren’t working well enough to constrain attention and resist impulses. Dopamine serves many complex functions in the brain, and only kindergarten brain science describes it as an addictive drug.
Dopamine is connected to rewarding experiences, but not in that it makes you feel good. On Twitter recently, a man challenged me saying that pornography “gives me a palpable dopamine rush after he abstains for a few days.” I replied that this was fascinating, and he must be a thoroughly unique and superhuman person, to be able to detect and discriminate the experience of different neurochemicals. Pleasurable experiences, whether sex or sports, involve many different neurochemicals and hormones released in our body, having complex and interactive effects.
When a person is about to experience pleasure, dopamine is released in the brain, and in the parts of the brain that experience and process pleasure. Dopamine’s role here is NOT that it makes you feel good. It doesn’t—the pleasure and hedonic or euphoria feeling comes from opioids in the brain, neurochemicals which increase pleasure and deaden pain. Dopamine’s role in pleasure and reward is that it helps your brain to recognize “incentive salience.” This means that it’s like a little red flag to your brain, saying “hey, pay attention, this is about to feel good, and you want to remember this, so you can do it again.” A critical issue here is that a lack of dopamine doesn’t actually make the experience feel less good. In studies with rats, where dopamine was suppressed, rats showed “normal hedonic reaction patterns,” and still showed normal pleasure responses even though dopamine was suppressed.
In another rat study, this one using heroin, it was shown that dopamine transmission increased in the anticipation of the heroin administration, but decreased sharply once the drug was administered (by the rat itself). Notably, this effect wasn’t present the first time the rat self-administered the heroin. Why? Because they hadn’t learned yet that the heroin was about to feel really good.
Dopamine is about learning that rewards feel good, so we can do them again. This applies to riding roller coasters, having sex, masturbating, kissing our lover, watching our favorite sports teams win, and even holding our infant child. Dopamine may be increased in anticipation of rewards, where the reward is uncertain. So, a sure thing may lead to less anticipatory dopamine release, than a gamble. Why? We don’t know. Perhaps because there is more to learn from that gamble, than from the sure thing. The sure thing offers little new information.
Why does this matter? Can’t this just be chalked up to lack of media sophistication, and pop psychology misunderstanding the nuance? In fact, when people such as Simon Sinek, the author and consultant whose viral video blames dopamine for millennial's problems bring up neuroscience, they are using a clever strategy to manipulate us. Mr. Sinek is not a neuroscientist, and has not studied or researched the complexity of this aspect of our brain. But, he knows something you don’t: mentioning neuroscience is a great way to convince people you are more knowledgeable about something, and to make your arguments more convincing. This effect was recently demonstrated by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, who showed that use of irrelevant references to brain science was an effective way to lure people into thinking that complex phenomena are simple, and easily explained by, well, the brain.
People’s problems are never simple. And when a person does a thing over and over, even when the behavior is causing problems, there are a great many complex reasons behind that behavior. When we offer the reductively simple answer of “because dopamine,” it distracts us from the person. It is the person who learns, and dopamine is merely a factor, one factor among many, in the learning. When we encourage people who are watching too much porn, using the cell phone while driving, or looking at Facebook every two minutes, to blame their problems on dopamine, we teach them to externalize the problem, and blame it on dopamine. Instead, if we focus on the learning, and the salience aspects of these process, it helps us to draw people’s attention back to their own behaviors, their own motivations, and the meaning that they (and their religious or social background) have given to this behavior or experience. It helps us to put people back in the driver’s seat of their life. So please, let’s start talking about people, rather than irrelevant neurochemicals.