The cult of dopamine: how the 'pleasure molecule' is under and overrated

The 'Kim Kardashian of molecules' is the subject of many myths and misconceptions

Model of a dopamine molecule (red) approaching a dopamine receptor (blue) in a cell membrane (orange). Photo: Getty
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Called “the Kim Kardashian of molecules” by British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell, dopamine has become a mainstream buzzword in pop culture.

It is regularly referred to in song lyrics; “dopamine dressing” was termed as a pandemic trend by Vogue Business; Pinterest features galleries of popular tattoo designs based on its molecular structure; and wellness sections of libraries are inundated with books promising to boost your levels through nutrition and diet.

But what is it?

Often inaccurately hyped up as the “pleasure molecule”, dopamine is implicated more in “pursuing” than producing pleasure.

For example, if you enjoy a sugar rush, dopamine is responsible for motivating you to seek a cupcake to satisfy your cravings, rather than the actual rush.

This neurotransmitter acts as a key motivator in maintaining addictive behaviour, which is why the level of dopamine released can be used to gauge the addictiveness of a particular object or experience.

Dopamine also plays a key role in our motivation, pleasure and reward system. It boosts mood and attention while helping to regulate our movement, learning, sex drive and emotional responses.

Meanwhile, imbalance of dopamine levels plays a significant part in a host of mental health problems, including psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and Parkinson’s disease.

Dopamine in Silicon Valley and the human attention economy

Understanding the vulnerabilities of human psychology and our brains is the catalyst behind the Silicon Valley boom in our attention economy.

Tech companies have been known to spike their products with random dopamine hits that create “compulsion loops”.

This technique is commonly used by makers of poker machines, constructed on the principles of variable schedule of reinforcement through operant conditioning; that is, reinforcing behaviours based on their consequences.

Today, this equates more commonly to the anticipation of being validated with one more like or comment on our social media posts, thus keeping us hooked on our screens.

So we develop a psychological dependence on social media, using it as an indispensable coping mechanism to relieve stress, loneliness or anxiety.

This is why in her book Dopamine Nation, Anna Lembke says the smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24-7 for an always wired generation.

A conceptual illustration of the degeneration of a dopaminergic neuron, the key step in development of Parkinson's disease. Getty Images

Gambling and addiction have one thing in common with social media: engineered psychological cravings. The endless scrolling and repeated checking of phones to refresh our feeds is akin to using the lever or button on a poker machine.

This is because dopamine release increases in anticipation of a possible reward, with uncertainty a major motivating factor.

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of user growth at Facebook, told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The aim is to “psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible and then give you back that dopamine hit”.

In a similar vein, Facebook's founding president Sean Parker has admitted that the thought behind the company was: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

In 1997, Michael Goldhaber predicted that the global economy was shifting from material-based to one based on the capacity of human attention.

With so many rivalling corporations vying for it, there is no surprise that so many of the online services are provided for free.

Or so we think. In fact, attention is the currency with which we pay.

Cognitive neuroscientists and neuroeconomics have shown that information and rewarding social stimuli such as positive emojis and recognition by our peers activate the same dopaminergic reward pathways as drugs such as cocaine.

Associate professor Ming Hsu, one of the researchers in a Berkley study, said: “The way our brains respond to the anticipation of a pleasurable reward is an important reason why people are susceptible to clickbait.

"Just like junk food, this might be a situation where previously adaptive mechanisms get exploited now that we have unprecedented access to novel curiosities.”

'Dopamine dressing' and detox

The tech industry is not the only one cashing in on our dopamine addiction. This year, dopamine dressing or “dressing yourself happy” was one of the hottest post-pandemic fashion trends.

It is based on the idea that wearing overtly fun and vibrant clothes can help lift your mood in depressing times.

In response, the fashion world saw more neon and sunny pieces this spring, and there was an increase in demand for bold and designs as compared to last year, global fashion platform reported.

Meanwhile, dopamine fasting has been popularised by Silicon Valley executives and wellness influencers.

It is the antidote to overstimulation and consists of abstention from food, drugs and other desires, and in some extreme cases, talking to other people for 24 hours or more.

In many ways it is the rebranding of the traditional fasting practised for religion, and older wellness fads such as intermittent fasting, proponents of which include Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey.

The end goal is a brain “reset” for a decluttered, more focused brain. But this moniker is misleading because complete dopamine abstinence is not possible.

“Dopamine fasting is a prime example of exaggerating the role of dopamine,” says Dr Zachary Freyberg, a physician-scientist and psychiatrist who studies human disorders of dopaminergic neurotransmission, including addiction, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

“In itself, this is good as it makes people more mindful of their surroundings and of themselves as they take a pause from screens.”

The context in which dopamine receives recognition in modern culture is what concerns the experts
Aisha Sanober Chachar, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist

But the idea of fasting from dopamine is misleading because it does not actually deplete the chemical or block its activity in the brain, because it is also used for a variety of other functions.

“For example, dopamine is essential for co-ordinating basic movement, and when its levels drop in the brain, this can create movement difficulties,” Dr Freyberg says.

Aisha Sanober Chachar, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, is of a similar opinion. Complete dopamine detox, whereby a person successfully halts all brain dopamine activity, is not possible and “would probably be lethal”, Chachar says.

“This is because the brain naturally produces dopamine, even when not exposed to certain stimuli. Thus, the concept of a dopamine detox is scientifically inept. It only reduces the brain to a very simplistic level.”

A more accurate description would be a stimulation fast, or unplugging from the world.

Chachar says that while public interest in the neurotransmitter is a good thing, “given the daunting complexity of our brains”, reducing contentment to brain chemicals – exclusively just one – is “inaccurate and overly reductionist”.

Our brain is more than the sum of its parts, so a holistic approach is more useful in understanding how it interacts with our behaviour.

Dopamine acts as a “switchboard” that tunes and helps direct our attention and budget our energy levels.

“Little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” Chachar warns. “The context in which dopamine receives recognition in modern culture is what concerns the experts; insisting the frequent implication that dopamine is the only factor at work.

"Unfortunately, the modern wellness industry has become lucrative by creating catchy titles for complex concepts."

Updated: October 10, 2021, 8:19 AM