Life would be very dull without dopamine, the brain chemical that jump starts the reward wiring in our head. Any activity related to survival such as eating, accomplishing a goal, quenching a thirst, or having fun in bed increases production of dopamine in our gray matter. It is the dopamine that gets our reward circuits buzzing.
Dopamine’s Job Description
Though there are other neuro-chemicals involved in our inner reward system, dopamine is the one that makes us feel we must have something. An increase of dopamine leads to our wants and cravings, prompting us to reach for the things we desire.
This is why it’s so difficult to diet. Eating many calories ensures human survival so our reward center is designed to salivate for foods that pile on the pounds. We have internal tugs of war over eating celery sticks or a candy bar, because the body releases more dopamine in response to a Snickers.
Choosing the candy bar, we are not going for the chocolate, gooey caramel, or nuts. What we are after is the release of dopamine to fire-up the reward center. Dopamine causes us to grab the Snickers, and then the brain’s endorphins and morphine kick-in, providing the experience of pleasure.
Out of Balance Dopamine
Dopamine, in normal amounts, is essential for survival, making decisions, having a sense of well-being, happiness, and enjoyment. It affects our mood, behaviors, self perception, and perception of others, and allows us to judge whether something is good, bad, or neutral. What if our body's dopamine production is not within the norm?
When out of balance, dopamine is thought to be responsible, at least partly, for some people’s addictions or obsessions. Dopamine levels become dys-regulated two ways. First, the body may produce too much, or too little of it. Second, the brain’s nerve cells might be (or become) too receptive to the dopamine, or not receptive enough.
Certain substances, activities, and behaviors become addictive because they flood our brain with dopamine. Our reward system enjoys novelty, variety, challenge, and surprises. Gambling, watching porn, compulsive spending, sex, and junk food provide some people with a neurotransmitter high; they repeat the activity because it triggers another brain blast of dopamine.
Not having enough dopamine messes with our ability to bond well with others. In a love relationship, it can cause partners to seem less appealing. If dopamine is scarce, so is a person’s wanting and craving. However, the hormone that keeps people bonded is not dopamine, but oxytocin.
The Dopamine Honeymoon
The blissful honeymoon period of a relationship is really a river of dopamine mixing with other chemicals and hormones, such as adrenaline. Remember, our reward system loves what is new and unexpected. When our partner becomes more familiar, we produce less dopamine at the sight of our dearly beloved.
Some people might say, “The thrill is gone.” The correct thing to say is, “Dopamine levels have dropped.”