What is Dopamine?

The moment you clicked on this website you experienced a little hit of this feel-good brain chemical!  In this case, it’s the element of the uncertainty, that even a click on a new blog or social media link, or an incoming ringtone that can cause the brain to provide us with a fix of dopamine. What will we find on Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter? Who’s calling or sending that text?

Dopamine is a neurochemical, made primarily between our ears. Its job is to promote our survival, like eating (especially fats and sugars), procreating, protecting ourselves, being fascinated by anything unexpected or novel, and taking risks meant to encourage learning and exploration – like clicking on a new website! All are rewarded with varying amounts of dopamine to get our attention, build memories of the good and the bad encounters, and motivate us towards or away from a similar experience in the future.

Want your Brain Back?

Unfamiliar and unmanaged, dopamine runs the show – in our personal lives, in politics, business, social issues, and global affairs. If you’ve ever commented on how anything or anyone, is “totally out of control” then you’ve observed dopamine in the red zone. At the very least it’s counterproductive. At its worst, it’s destructive.

The very good news, compliments of recent neuroscience, is that as we finally have the solid scientific data we need to tame this neurochemical powerhouse. If we learn how to use dopamine deliberately we can improve our lives and the world – no prescriptions, trainers, equipment, or additional time, money or neuroscience degrees necessary.

Greater happiness, success and stability, along with more physical and mental wellbeing become realistic targets. A little knowledge and a commitment to managing dopamine intentionally, is all it takes to upgrade the quality of our lives forever. When dopamine levels are healthy, we’re able to use the most advanced parts of your brain to:

  • Analyze information
  • Make long-term plans
  • Think independently
  • Work collaboratively
  • Innovate
  • Problem solve
  • Manage emotions
  • Be empathetic

Bottom line: We’re able to own and control our own minds.

My research is about connecting the dots between dopamine and its dramatic influence on our thinking, behavior, and life outcomes. Blog posts on this site apply information on dopamine and brain related data to real life issues – relationships, parenting, careers, education, politics, media, and social concerns, especially violence.

These findings, based on thousands of neuroscience studies, offer all of us a monumental second chance to have the brain we need for the life we want.

Duped By Dopamine

fatty-foods

When our forbearers consumed all the berries(sugar) and bison blubber(fat) they could pack away, it was a smart strategy that provided protection against lean winters. For their efforts they were treated to doses of dopamine. Now however, given limitless access to food that we enjoy today, our brains are prone to misinterpreting options and activities. We continue to be rewarded for all the sugar and fat we ingest. Chips, cookies, and colas are instinctively rewarded as sources of salt, sugar, and fat, but obviously devouring all the Snickers and Slim Jims we can pack away, is a problem because in this case, what’s happening is that we’re being rewarded with doses of dopamine for behaviors that are actually contrary to our wellbeing!

Along with the more obvious effects of alcohol, caffeine, and drugs, other examples of how dopamine influences our lives include the fact that brains interpret worry, video gaming, media violence, even ringtones as potential threats, and reinforces our attention to them with predictably enjoyable helpings of dopamine.  Questionable business practices, online porn, and gambling?  That’s right. They’re also construed by the brain as risky exploration, and rewarded accordingly with large servings of dopamine.

Could you be a Dopamaniac?

squirrel-jumpersAlthough dopamine remains essential for our existence, the non-stop availability of dopamine-producing foods, substances, and experiences served up by marketing, electronic devices, media, coffee houses, bars, and 24/7 service stations and convenience stores has unknowingly turned many, maybe most of us, into dopamine addicts, or “dopamaniacs”.

  • How do you feel when you’re without your smartphone, or cut off from a Wi-Fi signal? Most of us feel anywhere from uncomfortable to distressed, because we’ve become so dependent on the constant hits of dopamine our portable electronic devices provide.
  • How much of your day do you spend worrying, without an immediate cause?
  • What’s it like to go through the day without sweets, alcohol, caffeine, video games or cable television?
  • How does your body feel, what are your thoughts after an argument, watching ranting politicians, playing violent video games?

As with all addictions, we develop a tolerance to this “drug” and require ever-larger doses just to feel “okay”. Out of control dopamine is the culprit behind the scenes of our worst decisions and most puzzling counter-productive behavior. Elevated levels of dopamine cut us off from our higher thinking “human” brain. Relationships, careers, educational success, health, and civil society, including politics, economics, and social structure, pay the price, and sometimes that price is extremely high.