Dopamine. The name sounds a little sinister like something someone might slip into your drink. But no, dopamine is a neurotransmitter and is released inside our brains when there is a potential reward nearby. It’s a key participant in the way we learn how to seek things that make us happy and give us pleasure. (1)
Basically, when our brains recognize the opportunity for a reward dopamine is released. A feeling of arousal—alertness and desire—ensues and we become captivated with pursuing that reward—whatever it is food, drugs, sex, winning…. Dopamine identifies high-priority rewards that are especially good so that we pay attention. Evolutionarily, this ensured that we would seek food and sex so that our species would survive, but nowadays, “Rewards engage agents in such diverse behaviors as foraging and trading on stock markets.” (2)
These days, however, the cat’s out of the bag, so to speak, and guess who’s caught on to this key learning pathway in the brain? Marketers! We are bombarded with messages and situations designed to prompt dopamine to release in the brain and to spur us on to buy, eat, or do whatever it is that we unconsciously think is going to make us happy, because whatever it is that we’re seeking made us happy in the past. So, when you were a kid and learned that foods that had a lot of sugar and fat tasted really good and gave you pleasure? Every time that happened, it reinforced the dopamine reward-seeking pathway in your brain and now, the thought of that treat may put you on the path towards making sure you get it—especially when you’re stressed and in need of some pleasure to make yourself feel better. “For the most part, one’s motivation is to return to the rewards experienced in the past, and to the cues that mark the way to such rewards…” (1) And, it may not just be when we’re unhappy, but when we see it, smell it, hear about it, etc., anything that brings our attention to it prompts dopamine to release and we think, “Oh yeah, that, that was good…let me have some of that!” (2)
Basically, these reward-seeking behaviors become habits—potent ones. If we associate the taste of a fat- and sugar-laden goodie with pleasure, no matter how fleeting, we can get in the habit of trying to relieve our unpleasant emotions—stress, anger, grief, overwhelm, exhaustion—with goodies. Or if it’s not goodies, it can be other things like alcohol, shopping—the list is endless. And often times, getting what it was we desired isn’t as great as the feeling of desiring it and we’re left feeling bad that we consumed one more treat or went on yet another shopping trip.
Paying attention to the things that provoke our haze of desire can eventually give us the choice to give in or not—really, just becoming aware we have a choice is important! Noticing what prompts us and then paying attention to the feeling states and situations that these arise in makes it possible to interrupt our reward-seeking behaviors and decide whether we actually want that treat or not.
1. McGonigal, K. (2012) The Willpower Instinct. New York: Avery
2. Arias-Carrion, O., Stamelou, M., Murillo-Rodriguez, E., Menendez-Gonzalez, M., Poppel, E. (2010) Dopaminergic Reward System: A Short Integrative Review. International Archives of Medicine 3:24 http://www.intarchmed.com/content/3/1/24