Dopamine Defect

The Most Misunderstood “Reward Mechanism”

Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter. Our body produces it, and our nervous system uses it to communicate between our nerve cells. That’s why it’s called our body’s chemical messenger.

Dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure. Mind you, it simply plays a role. Often inaccurately hyped up as the “pleasure molecule”, dopamine is implicated more in “pursuing” the pleasure than producing it. For example, if you enjoy a sugar rush, dopamine is responsible for motivating you to seek a chocolate to satisfy your cravings, rather than the actual rush.

Have you ever just imagined meeting a long-distance friend or partner, and suddenly you feel a rush of happy feelings in your body? Soon you catch yourself imagining it more frequently in order to keep achieving that pleasurable rush? This happens because in anticipation of a possible reward, our dopamine release increases, which in turn motivates us to feel that pleasure again. In fact, we get more pleasure in anticipation of a reward than the reward itself.

Dopamine and social media crave
Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash

Let’s consider the example of posting on our social media platforms. Seconds before clicking the ‘post’ button is when you experience the most intense emotions, anticipating how many likes and comments it’ll get, causing dopamine release. However, minutes after posting, only a slight rush remains. There the dopamine hit equates to the desire of receiving one more like or one more comment in order to validate our looks/post. This ultimately compels us to check our phones frequently, keeping us glued to our screens. Soon we start using it as a coping mechanism to relieve stress, loneliness, anxiety or even insomnia. Let’s just say, not the healthiest coping mechanism, and what’s to blame? Dopamine.

But this is where the “concept” of Dopamine is always misunderstood.

The release of dopamine is not always a “happy” correlation as portrayed by the media these days. It sure does relate to an extent, but that is not it.

It in fact relates more to what the outcome was vs how you anticipated it to be. For example, you have just given an exam, and you predict you’ll get a 90%. While waiting for your result, you have a gradual release of dopamine as the exact result is unexpected. When the results came, you managed to secure a 98%. A huge rush of dopamine is suddenly released out of this unexpected yet positive outcome/reward. However, if you had gotten a 90% as expected, no more dopamine would be released despite the outcome being a positive one. If you had gotten anything below 90%, your dopamine neurons would be sulking just like you, hence the release of dopamine being stopped suddenly. The more positively unexpected the outcome, the more dopamine released.

Dopamine neurons do not shoot when you acquire something good. They shoot when you acquire something positively unexpected. Not to forget, they also suddenly halt upon a negatively unexpected outcome, triggering a state of dejection. Unfortunately, these days the concept of dopamine is often referred to as the ‘reward system’, when in reality it can better be described as a ‘prediction error system’.

Photo by Mishal Ibrahim on Unsplash

If the intricate nature of the idea and how dopamine neurons behave weren’t scary enough, dopamine’s effects are something to be wary of. That sudden release of dopamine when you experience something pleasurable, or the dopamine “hit”, creates a compulsion loop that serves as a major incentive in perpetuating addictive behavior. Hence, the level of dopamine released may be used to understand the addictiveness of something; an experience, food, substance or object.

Moreover, dopamine follows the law of diminishing returns. This is due to the same ‘prediction error’ concept explained above. Once you expect to experience the same high a drug/substance may give you, there is no prediction error, hence no dopamine hit. In other words, repeated drug use raises the threshold for this kind of pleasure, requiring higher doses to achieve the same high. Drugs, meanwhile, naturally reduce your body’s capability to produce dopamine. This in turn triggers emotional lows when you’re sober, leaving you craving for more substance. This ripple effect gets you stuck in a never ending loop with potentially fatal consequences. And what’s to blame? Yes, you guessed it right, DOPAMINE.

References:

Glimcher, P., 2011. Understanding dopamine and reinforcement learning: The dopamine reward prediction error hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(supplement_3), pp.15647–15654.

Aknowbrainer.com. n.d. Dopamine — incredibly critical and yet critically misunderstood. [online] Available at: <https://www.aknowbrainer.com/hormones-dopamine-is-not-abt-reward>.

Cristol, H., n.d. What Is Dopamine?. [online] WebMD. Available at: <https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-dopamine>.

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