Dopamine - why is everyone talking about it?

'When the eyes of a woman that a man finds attractive look directly at him, his brain secretes the pleasure-inducing chemical dopamine - but not when she looks elsewhere.'

Daniel Goleman

Thank you for joining me for blog 22 highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.

Today's blog starts a series on reward chemicals or so called 'happy hormones'. I have been researching them to better understand how the brain is motivated to do things. Understanding reward chemicals helps us get behind the scenes in many aspects of decision-making.

Whenever I finished exams, I always felt a huge sense of relief but that quickly followed by anti-climax. I explained it away as tiredness, or not having planned enough for the day of exams finishing, but it turns out this is a very typical signature of dopamine.

The main happy hormones are Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin and Endorphins. Dopamine is different from the others in that it is more about craving and anticipation rather than a high of the activity itself. There is so much to say about Dopamine that I have split it over two blogs. The first one about how it works, and the second about the way many industries try and hijack your dopamine to keep you coming back. It will also be clear how dopamine-led our lives are, and that is not a healthy thing. It is worth noting that the way brain chemistry works is much more complicated than this in reality, but to understand the drivers, the simplification is helpful.

Dopamine: How can such a simple chemical have such a large impact?

What dopamine does

Dopamine helps us pursue, control and possess the world beyond our immediate grasp. In this way it is the currency of motivation and drive. That involves foraging for food and seeking shelter, safety and reproductive partners. Perhaps unsurprisingly, humans have more of it than any other animal.

A good way to understand dopamine is to understand what happens when we do not have enough of it. When our motor circuits are not receptive enough to dopamine, we get Parkinson’s disease (a difficulty to coordinate intended movement). When the part of our brain that determines what we focus on does not receive dopamine we experience ADHD. Both movement and focus are examples of trying to turn ideas into actions.

The benefits of dopamine

Dopamine is the currency of motivation, planning and sacrifice. It overpowers the need for immediate satisfaction for a reward in the future. This makes us think more and feel less. Dopamine helps us consider future paths and takes us from the here and now into an imaginary future. Perhaps a future that we avoid a predator or find food, shelter or a mate. Dopamine thus, sparks focus and creativity.

Dopamine is very high when in dangerous situations, but also when winning competitions – defending territory and protecting your family or tribe is promoted by evolution.

Dopamine also helps people look beyond the here and now and enter the world of abstract ideas. This abstraction lends itself well to science where we imagine a solution to our problem and work towards it. Surprisingly it is also very relevant to art, and that ability to abstract is a commonality between science and art. That commonality is evidenced by many scientists having an artistic hobby.

When is dopamine stimulated and how does it work

Dopamine works through the Trigger, Action, Reward cycle.

Trigger: is something that we notice and desire

Action: behaviour required to realise the reward

Reward: something we get at the end of it

Dopamine is triggered by something we desire. This cues the behaviour leading to the reward. Notice that dopamine is not triggered on receiving the reward, it is a high to motivate you towards an end, but not the end itself. In philosophical terms it rewards making the journey but not necessarily reaching the destination.

As a part of our need to turn triggers into actions, dopamine helps our brains pick out important things and decide what is relevant to our goals. In this way, Dopamine aids memory, focus and attention. A mind bathed in dopamine is more likely to focus on the task at hand and remember important parts of the experience.

What is the Dopamine signature

Dopamine is not satisfying. That feeling of anti-climax is often a direct result of dopamine decreasing when an exciting future becomes a faced reality. I remember listening to a podcast where Jonny Wilkinson (the hero of England’s 2003 rugby World Cup) said that after winning that game, the feeling of anti-climax set in within 24 hours!

An example of a natural dopamine response is for a strong increase and then a decrease like the signature below. Either through the mechanism of sensitivity or level, we feel a bit flat when dopamine decreases after the anticipation subsides, but often we get reward in the guise of other brain chemicals from what we have desired. In the Jonny Wilkinson case, the dopamine level was sky high but quickly waned causing that awful low dopamine feeling.

Dopamine levels are boosted by novelty or sometimes uncertainty, and decreases as something becomes expected or normalised. We get bored of things that were once amazing and that the initial love of an item we have bought loses is lustre and we get buyer’s remorse. This can be true for romantic relationships too, that do not transition to longer term companionship.

We can measure the dopamine response as a percentage increase in baseline (normal) levels of dopamine. Food and sex elicit significant increases in dopamine, but some unnatural highs e.g. gaming and drugs are able to match or beat natural highs. This is next week's topic "The addiction industry - using dopamine to hook you'.

So what?

How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:

1) Dopamine is one of the happy hormones and is released to motivate people to act to receive a desired reward. Unlike other happy hormones it is a molecule of anticipation rather than receiving the reward.

2) Dopamine facilitates ideas being turned into actions and stimulates focus and creativity.

3) Dopamine has a signature that is a sharp increase then similar decrease. The anticipation of reward is a wonderful feeling but the return to lower levels is slightly unpleasant e.g. a feeling of anticlimax. Dopamine is stimulated by food and sex to aid survival and reproduction but there are also synthetic ways to boost dopamine. We will be discussing that next week.

Thank you for joining. Next week is "The addiction industry - using dopamine to hook you".