Another dot in the blogosphere?

Don’t be a dope

Posted on: November 2, 2021

Two content creators that I follow made recent episodes that focused on dopamine.

Video source

The first was a SciShow Psych video led by Hank Green who explained how dopamine was not just a feel good neurotransmitter. Dopamine has multiple functions and works in different parts of the brain. 

The video was a warning that if you hear something often enough, it becomes true. Self-styled experts like to warn that video games and Instagram are “addictive” because they release hits of dopamine. The people who know better do not have as loud or as clear a voice as armchair/online gurus, so they are not heard.

Green outlined how neuroscience has taught us that dopamine helps us “move around, take appropriate risks, and focus”. If the brain is short of dopamine, the person might exhibit symptoms of Parkinson’s. If that person is given a dopamine analogue, Pramipexole, the symptoms reduce.

Dopamine affects parts of brain to prevent depression (nucleus accumbens), stimulate attention (prefrontal cortex), impact memory (hippocampus), and more. Dopamine is a systemic chemical, i.e., it has complex and interconnected functions. It cannot be used in a focused way or be reduced to the label of happy chemical.

The most recent episode of Build For Tomorrow also focused on dopamine. This one was partly about the dopes making claims they do not understand. They arrive at conclusions first, e.g., social media is harmful even though it feels good, and then find supporting “rationale”, e.g., app use feels good because we get hits of dopamine.

Host of the podcast, Jason Feifer, countered such thinking by asking an expert. Consider this bit near the 21min mark of the podcast [see transcript].

Jason Feifer: For example, when technology critics talk about dopamine, they talk about it as a thing directly tied to pleasure and addiction, and only tied to pleasure and addiction. You do something pleasurable, you get dopamine, get enough dopamine, you’re addicted. Period, end of story. But is that actually true? 

Read Montague: Like all things in biology, dopamine doesn’t do one thing. It doesn’t have this monolithic dopamine equals pleasure marque. The fact is dopamine doesn’t equal pleasure. Squirts of dopamine, transient increases and decreases in dopamine, are clearly in certain kinds of brain regions, learning signals. They’re not pleasure signals. 

To label dopamine the happy chemical is simplistic. But it is what we keep reading or hearing in much of popular media because they embrace dumbing things down.

To attribute dopamine to addictive behaviour without understanding how it works or what addiction entails is irresponsible. It makes the speaker feel smart and superior, and it makes listeners worry and fear. It creates dopes of us all. That is, unless we learn to say NO to such disinformation.

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