What’s the Deal with Dopamine? Part 1: General Overview

By Jimmy Warden

*This is part one of a three part series about dopamine*

You may have heard of dopamine before. You may know it as the pleasure molecule or the neurotransmitter that causes addictions. You may also know it as impulsive voice in your head that is telling you to partake in a destructive behavior because of the immediate gratification it provides. No matter how you know dopamine, after reading a bit more in this post and subsequent posts, you will have an even better understanding about how it is responsible for all of the aforementioned ideas and much more.

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is indeed a neurotransmitter in the brain that fires signals from the brain to the rest of the body when we anticipate something that we desire. Dopamine is also considered the molecule of “more” because it also fires when we desire more of something. Whether it be more money, more sex, more food, more leisure, a bigger house, a better car, or anything associated with the idea of more or better. When we desire these things, it is dopamine that is engineering that desire.

Dopamine also fires in the face of novel experiences and it is future oriented. When we imagine a future outcome and what that experience might be like, dopamine is what creates that feeling of excitement we get from the imagined experience. This excitement that we are experiencing from something new can be attributed to the anticipation of what might happen next. This is why we get excited for new experiences, like road trips and other forms of travel. This excitement is heightened when we travel somewhere completely new because of how novel the experience is and the fact there is a strong potential of discovering something new.

Dopamine is also part of a desire circuit in our brain, hence why it is also thought of as the desire molecule, in addition to being thought of as the pleasure molecule or the molecule of more. Our desire circuit is very primitive in its nature and it often overpowers our ability to reason and think rationally. This circuit originated from our primitive ancestors, about two hundred thousand years ago because these ancestors always desired food. They always desired food because they were constantly on the brink of starvation. The desire circuit is located in the midbrain (also known as our primal brain or reptilian brain that is responsible for survival mechanisms), specifically in the ventral tegmental area. This area connects to the nucleus accumbens, which is what we know as motivation.

How desire affects decision making

Desire has an effect on decision making in a couple of main ways. First and foremost, it is much more powerful and stronger than willpower, so it makes us make decisions impulsively. This is a big reason why people have addictions and it’s a big reason why it’s hard to create or replace habits. It starts first as an impulsive decision and then the more that the behavior is repeated, it becomes a habit, and in some cases, addiction. No matter how strong our willpower is, eventually there will come a point where our willpower is rendered useless against some of our stronger desires, especially if there is an element of addiction attached to our desire. Considering that willpower only lasts so long, the more that someone is exposed to their addiction or the habit that they’re trying to replace or eliminate, the more likely it is that that person will cave into their desire. This is a primitive part of our brain that is hard to reason with.

Another way that desire affects decision making is that it’s also more powerful than liking something. This means that the pursuit of something is more engaging than the thing we are pursuing. This is why drugs become addicting and pursuing things that we don’t currently have, like cars or money, becomes enthralling. Not to mention other things like gambling. It is the chase that hooks us. Not the items themselves. A great example of this is when I had to get a new phone last year because my other one was damaged to the point where I could no longer use it. Once my initial phone was broken, I immediately had a strong desire for a new one because of all the things I felt I was “missing out” on. So, pursue a phone became the new game I was playing. However, once I had my new phone in my possession, it wasn’t joy I experienced, but rather I was already onto the “next phase” of the phone initiation by checking to make sure all of my data was transferred. Sure, I felt a sense of relief, which could be thought of as a form of joy, but that feeling quickly dissolved as the power came on for my new phone. I immediately started checking my photo files and contacts in anticipation that all of the information transferred. When I realized not everything was there, I felt a little disappointed. There is a big reason why that is.

Reward prediction error

The reason why I had a feeling of disappointment despite having a one thousand dollar piece of technology in my hand was because of a concept called reward prediction error. Reward prediction error is a gap between our future perception of reward and the reward itself. What this means is that I was subconsciously predicting a greater feeling of joy in anticipation of the new phone than the actual feeling I received. There was a gap between what I predicted and what I experienced. I had high levels of dopamine flowing in anticipation of this new item, but when I received it, and interpreted it to be “not as good as I thought”, this rush of dopamine was instantly slowed down. This is why I felt disappointed. It didn’t feel as good to get that phone as I had predicted, mostly due to the fact that there were some things missing in the files.

We’re always predicting outcomes, both consciously and subconsciously, about the future outcomes in many aspects of our lives. We anticipate the feelings that we’ll experience when that outcome eventually occurs. When that feeling isn’t as good as we predicted, we feel disappointment or perhaps frustration. When that feeling is as good, or even better than we predicted, we feel joy or elation. Some examples that a lot of people experience involve going to see a new movie or a new restaurant. Those people are excited about the new, novel experience of a new movie or visiting a new restaurant, but sometimes these don’t end up being as good as we expect, so we leave the theater or restaurant disappointed. Other times, it is better than we expected, so we leave the theater or restaurant excited or satisfied or happy that we went. This is reward prediction error in action.

This concept applies to a lot of other areas in our lives, but in new relationships, it is especially relevant. Specifically, those relationships that are intimate in nature, combine both the desire aspect of dopamine with reward prediction error. There is a level of desire that is involved in the pursuit of a new relationship and even within the early stages of the relationship. It is a new and novel experience, so there is a lot of dopamine flowing through us during the early stages. This is what people often refer to as the “honeymoon phase” where both parties are so infatuated with the newness of this relationship that they are blind to any of the aspects of the relationship that may make it non-compatible. Eventually, the burning desire in this new relationship begins to fade, and the parties become more aware of the fact that it may not be as great as they previously thought. This is a big reason why many relationships do not make it past 12-18 months because that the approximate amount of time for the desire to run its course.

Control Dopamine vs. Desire Dopamine

Thus far, we’ve just been mentioning one of the two types of dopamine. The type we’ve been discussing is desire dopamine. Desire dopamine is the impulsive voice we have or impulsive decisions we make, usually in the pursuit of something we want in that moment. However, there is another form of dopamine that has a head on its shoulders and is responsible for long-term planning, goal setting, and calculation. This form of dopamine is properly named control dopamine.

There is a control circuit in our brain that houses control dopamine. This area of the brain flows to the frontal lobes, specifically to our prefrontal cortex, so we can make informed decisions. This area is the origin of willpower and it helps to set us up for success in the future. The way that it sets us up for future success is by giving us the ability to plan long-term. Considering willpower only lasts so long, it is crucial that we develop a well thought out plan if we want to make some long term changes in our lives that stick. Otherwise, we’ll fall by the way side to our desires. This is why 12-step programs, cognitive behavioral therapy, and motivational enhancement therapy work well. They are well thought out plans that are also backed in brain science, specifically by understanding how dopamine affects the decisions we make.

12-step programs incorporate control dopamine by giving the users a specific long-term plan (completing the 12 steps for recovery) to complete and combining that with another neurotransmitter (serotonin) that is responsible for regulating our emotional well-being, by including a community aspect. If one didn’t complete the 12-steps, they would most likely feel guilty and ashamed that they let their fellow members of the group down. Cognitive behavioral therapy involves control dopamine to overcome our desires by removing any and all cues that might trigger our desire. That means the alcoholic must throw away all of their liquor and beer, as well as the glasses that they use to drink those drinks from. Not to mention, remove any cues that lead to the pouring of a drink. One example of this was a man who used to close his blinds before he’d pour himself a drink, so CBT told him to stop closing the blinds. As for motivational enhancement therapy, it incorporates a form of control dopamine that involves the desire for a better future to overcome the desire for short-term gratifications.

In summary

Dopamine is responsible for a lot of what we do in our lives. Specifically, it is responsible for the impulsive thoughts and behaviors that we engage in on a daily basis, due to the fact that it only has a desired future in mind. Dopamine makes us want more of something and it makes us pursue that more. Whether it is more money, more sex, a better house, more assets, more friends, dopamine is at the core of wanting more. It has a direct affect on our motivation and it directly affects the decisions we make as a result. Our motivations and desires often overpower liking and willpower. When we feel joy or disappointment, this is because there was a prediction error in the amount of dopamine being released in the anticipation of something and the amount of dopamine released upon its occurrence. In order to optimize for a brighter future, we must use control dopamine to come up with well thought out plans, in order to make that future happen.

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