The truth about dopamine

Dopamine is the most abused neuro word in our everyday language now. So the neuro series will not attain nirvana without a dedicated post to this pleasurable chemical.

Structure & Function

Dopamine popularly called as the pleasure molecule. Its chemical spelling is C8H11NO2 and it looks like this.

Evolutionarily (the chemical) dopamine is what made us eat when we are hungry, drink when we are thirsty, having sex when we have the desire, getting things done when needed, competing and winning etc.

Dopamine is best known for its role in the brain's reward system, which responds to everything from sex and food to addictive drugs. But dopamine also helps regulate emotional responses, memory and movement. It makes us go after things that are important. And abnormal dopamine levels have been linked to disorders including Parkinson's, schizophrenia and autism. A gene called TH, which is involved in the production of dopamine, is expressed in the neocortex of people, but not in chimpanzees.

Robert Sapolsky (Prof of neurobiology @ Stanford) cites evidence that in humans, dopamine levels rise dramatically when we anticipate rewards that are uncertain and far in the future, like retirement or even the afterlife. That could explain what motivates people to work for things that have no obvious short-term benefit. Dopamine helps us survival pathway. It makes us do it again and again whether we like it or not.

Drugs & Dopamine

Our brain prioritises based on how much dopamine it is going to get. It goes behind what gives the most dopamine. When a kidnapper calls and your child is at risk, you will care least about ethics, morality etc and go and do everything needed to save the child. The phenomenon is called Competitive Goal Readjustments.

With drugs like cocaine, the dopamine circuit is short circuited and slammed with a chemical blast. The over simulation gives a high and it overweighs any natural behaviours. Now if you are on drugs and the kidnapper calls you, you may not care much about the child (harsh but real). That is your dopamine prioritising activities for you.

Our brain always chooses bigger dopamine hit. This is the basis of addiction. This happens with food, Netflix, alcohol, drugs, porn and social media - notifications. Some produces high stimulation (drugs) and some aren’t that high (food). The dangerous loop is the initial high becomes new normal slowly. Over a period of time the dopamine receptors shrink in size as well affecting the efficiency of everyday activities.

Dopamine Detox

A new concept called Dopamine fasting or detox is making in-roads in our modern lives. Here is my POV on the same.

  • Not overstimulating your reward center is a good idea. This not mean depriving natural survival behaviours like food etc. Anything you feel compelled to do, try and detox from the same.

  • Taking a break from stimulation is great any day. You can start with an hour a day and slowly increase it to 4 hours a day.

  • Dopamine is more about wanting-circuit and not a liking-circuit so having an environment which is decluttered and not stimulating is a good idea.

  • Having strategies like only publishing in social media and no consumption (zero followers) also helps because comparison is a thief of joy and social media has a power to do that.

  • Taking up rituals like no-fap (mastrubation) helps.

Here is what I think (I don’t have empirical data to prove it but my experience is proving me right): I think the only way we keep going among all hardships is because of this reward system in our body programmed biologically. Otherwise we cannot be survival and replication machines that we are. No one will desire sex, if we worry about the pain of labour and 9 months of pregnancy and yet we go through this. The irrational human brain is fascinating. This is why enlightenment is beyond human. By passing a reward system is hard for mere mortals. Trying has tremendous benefits to our brain and body. By understanding dopamine, I hope you will be more empathetic to your brain and you will enhance your actions.

🥂to surprise!

Credits: Images from Cyrus McCandless TedX

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