The neurotransmitter dopamine is eliciting a lot of panic these days.
According to books, articles and social media posts, our urge for a quick dopamine hit is why we crave cookies and spend too much time on Instagram. If we keep giving in to these desires, the rationale goes, we’ll never be able to stop ourselves.
“We’ve transformed the world from a place of scarcity to a place of overwhelming abundance,” Dr. Anna Lembke, a Stanford psychiatrist, wrote in her best-selling book “Dopamine Nation.” Consequently, we’re all at risk for “compulsive overconsumption.”
A self-improvement trend often called “dopamine fasting” that emerged in 2019 revolves around abstaining from anything that causes the release of the chemical. The premise is that modern-day entertainments rewire the brain so that slower-paced pastimes are no longer pleasurable.
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“What we think it maybe does is something like desire,” said Talia N. Lerner, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Northwestern University. “It teaches your brain how to predict your needs and try to align your behaviors with those needs.”
A neurochemical that controls desire can sound sinister, but pursuing rewards is not inherently a problem; it all depends on the context. Animals from honeybees to humans developed dopamine systems to motivate them to seek out food and sex in order to survive and procreate.
“It’s an important part of why we’re here today,” said Kent C. Berridge, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan. “We wouldn’t have evolved and we wouldn’t have survived, our ancestors, without dopamine.”
Dopamine is also essential for learning. In this context, the key element that causes dopamine neurons to fire is surprise, regardless of whether the outcome is rewarding or disappointing.
“Dopamine tells you not when something is good or bad, per se, but when it’s better or worse than you expected it to be,” Dr. Lerner said. That surge of dopamine helps you update your expectations and potentially modify your behavior for the future.