This dopamine is no joke, man!

Every so often I’ll write a bit of nonsense without thinking too hard about what I’m saying, often pulling stuff out of the deep dark recesses of my brain, stuff that ended up there through the most dubious of processes, like watching news, or reading a book I picked up, just because I was idle and looking to kill a couple of hours.  That’s how I first learnt about dopamine, in a peculiar Rom Com called...wait for it...Dopamine.  Now because the human memory is a fickle creature, I can’t remember what the point to the movie was, but I remember the random chemical term thrown in, and the flimsy story line built around it. 

Shock on me when I’m reading this article last night, What Turns You On? 10 Fascinating Facts About Sexual Attraction, and I find out that what I was using as a convenient excuse for foolish behaviour is actually the real deal.  In exploring the link between music and getting it on, “researchers at McGill University in Toronto did PET scans and MRIs on eight participants, age 19-24, while they were listening to self-chosen “chill-inducing” music, and found that while dopamine was present in the brain during the music it spiked up to 9% around the “chilling” passages.”  I know, 9% doesn’t really seem too impressive, but consider this,  “In fact, in a study commissioned by Spotify on 18- to 91-year-olds in the UK on the relationship between music and romance, 40% said the background music would be a more likely turn-on than their partner’s touch.”  Folks, its official, this dopamine story is the real deal.  Or not?

Because I’m quite idle, I set out to do what I initially thought would be some light reading, to try and figure out what exactly this chemical is, and more importantly, how to synthesise the damn thing, so I could make some money off it.  You know what they say about best laid plans?  Two hours later I was even more confused and suffering a mild stress headache because I don’t have my specs on (long story, don’t ask).  Nkt!  Light reading my ass...  On the off chance you get possessed to read up, do NOT go to the Wikipedia page, not unless you have a degree in medicine, or are looking to fall asleep in under a minute.  “Dopamine (abbreviated as DA[1]), a simple organic chemical in the catecholamine family, is a monoamine neurotransmitter, which has a number of important physiological roles in the bodies of animals.” That’s the first line.  Good, no?  No.  As always, when stuck I turn to the urban dictionary, to read what other clueless people think, and it didn’t disappoint: “It's a catecholamine neurotransmitter, which means it sends a message in your brain to tell you that you think that girl you're looking at is fitter to make offspring with than any other dame.”  Even better, no?  No.  Do you now see what I’ve been dealing with? 

Simply, and possibly erroneously, put, dopamine is one of the chemicals responsible for transmitting signals between nerve cells (neurons), kind of like a messenger.  Now the way they tell it, dopamine is responsible for everything from motor function to long term planning to personality, and yes, to addiction; again from Wikipedia, “Dopamine has many functions in the brain, including important roles in behaviour and cognition, voluntary movement, motivation, punishment and reward, inhibition of prolactin production (involved in lactation and sexual gratification), sleep, dreaming, mood, attention, working memory, and learning.”  I’ll steer clear of how exactly it does all these things, because, in truth, I still don’t get it.  And as much as the relationship between dopamine and personality is fascinating (I told you I’m idle), that’s beyond the scope of today’s post, that and the fact that I suspect you’d lynch me if I subjected you to it.  Because I’m not a scientist, and because I have somewhat deviant tendencies (as do you, no?), I’ll restrict myself to dopamine and love, or sex, and summarise. 

Dopamine is called the learning and reward chemical, released under positive stimuli, and negative apparently, although that’s still up for discussion (What is dopamine?).  What happens is this, and if there’s any scientist out there, please correct me if I’m talking shit, dopamine is released when you have a rewarding experience, and then it’s released again when you see the cue for that same experience, because the body wants more rewards i.e. pleasure.  Hence, learning and rewards.  Problem is this only works with unexpected rewards, once the body gets used to it, less dopamine is released.  Yaani, for those of you staring at the screen with glazed eyes right now, that shit don’t last forever.  From what I’ve read, whenever we experience something new, something unexpected that we enjoy, our brain doses us with a hit of dopamine, branding the experience as something good that we would like to repeat.  The more unexpected it is, the bigger the hit, which is why as we get more and more of said experience, that is, as it becomes less unexpected and more regular, the hits gets smaller.  If you think of dopamine as the mind’s way of kicking the body into high gear, to search for the reward, then once the reward becomes easier to obtain, guaranteed so to speak, the body no longer needs to work as hard to get it, and thus no need for the kick start.  Can you see where I’m going with this? 

What?  You didn’t really think I’d waste a beautiful sunny afternoon on scientific exploration, just?  What the hell do I look like, a nerd?  Please don’t answer that...

This thing called dopamine is the reason you’re attracted to, and persist in chasing, the unattainable, and why once you get it, you no longer want it any more.  Say, for example, you meet a disturbingly hot dude, a man who delights in being unavailable, and completely unsuitable to boot.  You chase said man, or let him chase you, reluctant to be caught, but ever so curious to find out what the catching will be like.  As tends to happen, the day comes along when it all comes together, and before you know it, the reward has been sampled.  And you like it!  And then he buggers off, such as that type tends to, and you’re left craving another fix.  Ten months later he reappears, and you instantly go into overdrive, you get another hit.  You know you really shouldn’t, but dammit if it doesn’t feel like the best you’ve ever had, at that moment at least.  This time he sticks around, and before you know it, he becomes a regular occurrence in your life, only now, the hit is not as intense, and the high is not nearly as high as it used to be.  In time, the man who seemed to be the best thing since sliced bread now looks, and tastes, like Supa Loaf, worse still, the fake one.  Dopamine is the reason we keep falling for bad boys, and why it never lasts, it's a brain defect, perhaps. 

That makes you feel better, no?  No?  Ah well...

On the up side, dopamine is also the reason the spark goes out of your relationship, eventually.  Yes, I said up side, si you give me a chance to explain?  Impatient buggers...    It’s inevitable, you see, for as long as you keep getting the rewards you seek, be it love or sex, in time it loses its appeal, and you start craving a new high, which is why the Maker had the good sense to throw in another chemical, oxytocin.  Sorry, I couldn’t help it, but you had to know I was going to throw in another one.  This science story is a slippery slope, no?  Oxytocin is the bonding chemical in your brain, it’s what keeps us from hopping from partner to partner at random, like junkies chasing the ever elusive high.  When you get intimate with someone, physically and emotionally, your brain secretes this little beauty, in part, I suspect, to mitigate for the drop in dopamine.  Put differently, if not for the bond you feel for the former dopamine inducer, you would have buggered off long ago, in search of that new high.  And if this ‘cuddle’ chemical doesn’t kick in, then what?  Then perhaps you might want to consider walking away, think of it as your mind’s way of telling your body to keeping looking.  It sounds harsh, but sometimes there’s no point fighting nature, no? 

The point to all this?  I have more time on my hands than I know what to do with.  The other point to this?  So do you, clearly, you’ve just sat through 1400 words on a random chemical in your brain.  And the real point to this?  At the end of the day, irrational longing and constantly chasing what you don’t, or can’t, or maybe shouldn’t, have is simply a factor of biology, it’s your body doing what your mind tells it to, without question.  That’s just how we do, no?  The trick, however, is not to get too wrapped up in the temporary high, instead realising that it will fade, and when it does you can only hope to have a bond worth talking about to fall back on.  Perhaps instead of chasing that truly, madly, deeply feeling infatuation junkies like myself seem to be hooked on, perhaps we need to start looking beyond the explosive beginnings and focus on the seemingly ‘boring’ ever after.  Seems to me, dopamine isn’t much to talk about in comparison to oxytocin, because what can be better than a genuine bond, except... perhaps... I can’t think of anything, can you?

Langa bastards and philanderers, serial monogamists, commitment phobes and perpetual singletons, we all have one thing in common, a weakness (or is it fondness?) for dopamine and a (some might say troubling?) immunity to oxytocin.  The good news is, however, that there's hope for us, all it takes is a bit of research (and perhaps a lot of restraint), and maybe we can train our minds to respond to meaningful rewards, instead of our usual nonsense highs.  Put differently, stop stressing and cut yourself some slack, we’re all a little fucked up, literally, best we can do is learn from the past and keep moving forward, no?