I'm Grateful for Dopamine
I thank my brain for its survival efforts instead of attacking its shortcomings
Posted Nov 26, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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!