You’ve probably heard of it, but do you really know what dopamine is? Here’s an ELI5 guide on everything you need to know about dopamine and its effects.
The rockstar of all brain chemicals, the ambrosia of your head, the dopest of them all—that’s dopamine.
While you think your heart has something to do with falling in love and orgasm has something to do with what’s happening between your legs, the mastermind of it all is actually between your ears.
Yes, it’s your brain that makes all your feelings, thoughts, and sensations possible. And a lot of this is due to dopamine.
So what is dopamine?
Dopamine is the principal neurochemical that activates your reward circuitry, which is the core of your limbic system. The limbic system is a complex network of nerves in the brain, which controls your basic emotions, motivations, instincts, and moods.
In other words, dopamine is in the works when you perform many tasks, especially those that are vital for your survival. From planning to having sex, from hunger to caring for other people, dopamine has a lot to do with it.
How does dopamine work?
Dopamine is just one of the many chemical signals that pass information from one neuron to the next through synapses, which are spaces between the billions of neurons in your brain. Each neuron either sends or receives signals from dopamine molecules between each other depending on the stimuli that your brain receives.
When one neuron releases dopamine, it bumps against the receptors of the receiving neuron, sending a signal. Imagine this happening throughout your brain, on a larger scale via the various complex networks in your brain, particularly the dopamine pathway.
This pathway, also called mesolimbic pathway, starts deep in the middle of the brain and sends signals out to other regions, causing a complex interplay of brain chemicals and brain cells. The effects of dopamine on the brain, and generally on you, depend on where the dopamine is coming from, where the receiving neurons are, what type of neurons they are, and what receptors are receiving the signals, and so many other factors.
Your brain in love *and on dopamine*
Those who have fallen in love can equate the euphoria as being high on drugs. In fact, being in love has the same effects in the brain as being on cocaine. In a study conducted by Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, lovers are found to have certain parts of their brains lighting up when they focus on their object of affection.
These brain areas are associated with dopamine and norepinephrine production, which are responsible for feelings of pleasure, rewards, and excitement. This could also be the reason why breaking up is like kicking an addiction.
For longer-term relationships and marriages, wherein couples are still head-over-heels in love as if they were just on their first date, the same brain chemicals are still in the works, in the same regions. In a study conducted by Ted Huston on long-term couples, their brain scans still look eerily similar to those of Fisher’s brain scans of blooming lovers.
Here, let’s take a closer look at how dopamine works as you fall in love.
Dopamine and the stages of love
#1 Attraction. So there’s a new guy in your office and you find him attractive. Everytime you see this person, you feel all giddy, happy, and excited due to the dopamine released in your brain. And since your brain wants you to keep this feeling of infatuation, it fires off more dopamine each time you see or even think of this person.
#2 Courtship and dating. The guy notices you too. Soon enough, he asks you out on a date. Come date night, your palms are sweaty, your heart’s racing, and you are so nervous and excited. This time, not only does dopamine influence you—there’s also a plethora of other chemicals that pump out of your brain and your body, such as the adrenaline from your adrenal gland, as well as norepinephrine and epinephrine in your brain. All these give you a rush of excitement.
#3 Falling. The date was great and now you’re hooked. At this point, the regions of the brain responsible for that “in-love” feeling, the limbic system governed by dopamine, is lit up. Basically, your brain has decided that it wants to continue this feeling, and maybe even leads you to crave and desire that person.
#4 Rose-colored glasses. When you’re in love, you don’t see the flaws of the other person. All you see is how amazing he or she is, ignoring the red flags that may harm you or your relationship. This is because as your limbic system is holding a party, your amygdala shuts down, causing you to throw good judgment out the window. The amygdala is responsible for detecting dangerous situations, even discerning if a person is lying to us.
#5 Attachment. As you spend more and more time with this person, you create a bond, an attachment, caused by oxytocin. This “love hormone” is produced in the hypothalamus and released in the brain during times of intimacy and connection, even when we orgasm. Unlike the intense yet shorter-lived high of dopamine, oxytocin sticks around much longer, which can lead you to be attached to your partner.
#6 Deep attachment. At this stage, you may think you can’t live life without this person, the love of your life. This is because you have developed commitment, and your brain has shown increased activity in the ventral pallidum, which is rich in oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. These chemicals are associated with monogamy and deep attachment that makes relationships even last for life.
Therefore, when it comes to love, there’s more to your brain than just dopamine doing the work. In fact, dopamine is more prominent in the early stages of attraction and courtship, that surge of intense attraction and passion. But when it comes to long term affections, there are other chemicals that are responsible for longer, more lasting relationships.
So is dopamine just a pleasure chemical?
While many say that dopamine is the pleasure chemical in the brain, it actually does more than give you a high. In fact, it’s responsible for making sure you survive—and even last long enough to procreate.
There’s a long list of everyday activities that cause the release of dopamine, giving you satisfaction, pleasure, and causing your survival:
-Eating spicy food and other seemingly dangerous stuff such as hot, crispy, and icy food
-Consuming food that give you instant energy boost such as sweets, chocolates, and coffee
-Smelling certain scents
-Touching textured and smooth surfaces
-Listening to exciting music
-Looking at attractive sights
-Taking risks and succeeding
-Laughing at jokes or pranks
-Making discoveries whether by learning, looking, exploring or traveling
Aside from these, many other drugs can cause dopamine to be released, and these are manufactured to treat acute pain, attention disorders, renal failure, and cardiovascular diseases. This is because dopamine has the ability to increase blood flow and heart rate, among other things. There are also illicit drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine that flood the neural pathways with dopamine, causing a surge of ecstasy to the brain.
Many scientists would also say that dopamine is more like a “gotta have it!” chemical, whatever “it” is. It is the chemical that is released when you have a reward, and it is also the chemical responsible for making you go after the reward. Essentially, dopamine is never satisfied, as this study says.
From milk to cupcakes, jokes to cocaine, dopamine plays a really big part with attraction, lust, love, excitement, and addiction, movement, motivation, and so much more. It should not be seen simply as a negative or a positive, though. It’s just how you are wired. In other words, dopamine is natural and essential to your survival. Furthermore, this simple, single molecule just shows you just how complex your mind is, and how extraordinary you are as a human being.
On the whole, what is dopamine? Well, it’s more than just a pleasure chemical. It is essential to survival. It tells you what to do and what to keep doing. Without it, life would be so dull and boring, and you would have less appreciation for the people and things around you.