Dopamine, dopamine, dopamine. Oh, sweet dopamine. Just glance through dopamine’s Wikipedia page and you’ll find out that it’s far more confusing that it seems on the surface. There are graphs and technical words that don’t make much sense to the everyday Joe!

As an Educator with the EDGE, it’s part of our job to understand the confusing facts about dopamine, so I’ll do my best to explain it at the most basic level. If you still don’t understand by the end of this post, email or call us and we’d be happy to talk more about it (and let me say, there is a LOT more we could add). Disclaimer: we’re not doctors or neuroscientists. If you want to know the specifics of how brain chemistry works, you would be better off looking through some medical textbook, or talking to your doctor.

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Dopamine was discovered in the 1950’s by a guy named Arvid Carlsson (1945-2018), and he won a Nobel Prize for his work on it. Back then, he thought that dopamine caused pleasure. That’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not completely true either - I’ll explain later. We still don’t understand everything about dopamine (brain science is hard and there’s a lot to learn!), but let me break down the parts we’re confident about.

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If you’ve taken any level of science or biology, you probably know a little bit about how the brain works: the brain communicates with the rest of your body to store thoughts, memories and emotions, all while it tells your body how to move. When your arm goes to pet your goldfish, it’s because your brain told it to act. When your stomach hurts after eating seventeen tacos, it’s because your brain is telling you to stop eating. Your brain is constantly acting and reacting, all of which happens because nerves and cells are constantly making connections. These cells and nerves can’t pass information to each other without messengers called neurochemicals; our favorite of which is called dopamine.

Dopamine is a connector, so it doesn’t technically give you any pleasure or good feelings, but it does do something known as “reward signal." Your brain has several mechanisms that give it pleasure, and even though dopamine isn’t one of those chemicals, it is the reason for your anticipation of pleasure. Dopamine helps you look forward to the things that release pleasure chemicals.

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Sometimes a person doesn’t have enough dopamine to make those connections. One of the side effects of not enough dopamine can be that they don’t feel like doing the things they usually love. When they’re out with their friends they can still have a great time, but when they’re at home alone, they don’t feel like doing anything. This creates a cycle where they might not feel like going out the next time there is an opportunity, so they become more and more lonely. If you or anyone you know has felt this way, it can be really helpful to talk to your parents or an adult that you trust. Sometimes this is a natural phase that will pass on it’s own, but even if that’s the case, it’s always helpful to be able to talk about the way you feel.

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Understanding Dopamine is really helpful to understand risk-taking behavior. The best illustration I can think of is eating too much ice cream. Ice cream is tasty (and weirdly enough, scientists have spent time and money trying to figure out what makes ice cream wonderful). When you eat ice cream, your brain recognizes the sugar (and overall tastyness) and sends you some of those happy chemicals. The dopamine receptors in your brain will allow those connections to be made, and tell your brain “wow, ice cream makes me really happy! I should eat ice cream at every meal!”

 

Most of us have parents who will prevent us from eating ice cream for every meal, but because dopamine tells us ice cream made us happy, we look forward in happy anticipation for our next bowl of ice cream. Your brain’s reaction to dopamine doesn’t realize that too much ice cream could be detrimental to our health, it just knows it makes you happy. Other parts of your brain have to remember why you can’t eat ice cream all the time and they fight the urge to pursue pleasure before health.

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Dopamine has a lot of influence over the way that you feel pleasure and think about things that make you happy, but dopamine is just one part of your brain; it doesn’t control you. Dopamine might be releasing in your brain right this minute because you remember how much you love ice cream, but you also know that it’s 10 AM and you can’t start eating ice cream yet! It’s up to you to measure the immediate pleasure compared to the pleasure that results from a long and healthy life.

You have the power to make a decision that will impact your future, it doesn’t seem like much right now, but every decision you make counts. Every time you say “no” to an unhealthy decision, you are building will-power that you will be cultivating your entire life. That’s a lot of power! Are you up to the challenge?