Archive | September 2012

The power of dopamine

First off, I must apologize for my absence. As you already know, I recently obtained my PhD in Neuroscience and this month has been a slow transition into my new position– the postdoctoral fellowship. Those in academia will know that this cut-throat position is the next rung on the ladder for those clambering for the much-coveted position/status of “professor”. Unfortunately, something like less than 10% of all postdoctoral fellows (a position that can last anywhere from 3 to 10 years) actually end up with an academic job, the rest, well, I figure they must find better things to do with their lives.

Fortunately, my recent “epiphany” and dramatic increase in self-awareness and understanding of the world forced me to confront the fact that if I wasn’t actively daydreaming (creating images & expectations) about becoming an academic professor, then it was probably because my mind was staunchly opposed to the idea in the first place. Basically, my subconscious was telling me that I, a born and bred INTP, would probably suck at being a professor. Or possibly not suck, because I like to be independent, learn new things and succeed, but at the very least I would be very very stressed and very very unhappy.

You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do. -Gretchen Rubin

Unfortunately, most people are usually deep into their lives & careers before they come to these realizations. It is far too easy to ignore all the warning signs, to continue forward on auto-pilot working towards meaningless short-term goals, to get sucked-in because it’s easy and comfortable to follow what everyone else around you is doing. Eventually, you may try to convince yourself that if this is everyone else’s dream/long-term goal then you must somehow find a way to make it yours too.

As I recently found out, the mind just doesn’t work that way.

You are probably now wondering one of two things. 1) What the hell does all this rambling have to do with dopamine? and 2) why has INTPblogger decided to do a post-doc then?

I’ll take a stab at answering #1 and if I feel up to it, I may answer #2 as well.

1. The short answer: EVERYTHING

The long answer: well, it will probably take me a few decades to fully build my theory and figure out all the facts & details (INTPs come up with plenty of crazy theories based on vague assumptions and personal experiences, but we take our sweet time when it comes to actually putting anything concrete together, it’s the part we find “fun”).

For now, let me just introduce you to dopamine. Dopamine2.svg

You might think that a dog is a man’s best-friend, or that a diamond is a woman’s best-friend, but I say that mankind’s (as well as all other organisms lucky enough to be synthesizing and secreting the stuff) best-friend is dopamine. Why? Well, because dopamine is the brain chemical that makes us “feel” good. It’s the chemical that makes us get up in the morning, directs and reinforces our behaviors/habits, motivates us to set and achieve goals, creates dreams & expectations, helps store our long-term memories, increases our confidence and assertiveness, drives us to meet our basic needs (food, sex, water, shelter, sleep, love) and the list goes on. It’s even the reason why some people can’t seem to get enough of their barking hounds or sparkling diamonds (unfortunately neither of those things give me pleasure; if only life were that simple). Now, I’m in no way attributing all of human behaviors to one pesky brain chemical, although I would sure love to and someone before me has tried. Of course, there are a slew of other brain chemicals/neuromodulators that also have a significant impact on our behaviors– leptin and grelin signal hunger and satiety, oxytocin and vasopressin are involved in pair-bonding, serotonin is involved in delaying rewards for larger long-term gains, noradrenaline is involved in the fight-or-flight response (stress). But, at the end of the day, dopamine is probably the final player that prompts us to do anything.

The power of dopamine as a motivator and positive reinforcer of behaviors was first demonstrated in 1954 by a pair of scientists, James Olds and Peter Milner. They found that they could get rats “hooked” on receiving electrical stimulation that targeted regions of the brain containing dopamine-producing neurons. They were able to train the rats to press down on a lever to receive this electrical stimulation, and, shockingly, the rats eventually went on to favor pressing the lever over all other survival behaviors/instincts — ie. searching for sex, food and water. Even more eerie is the fact that, before proper ethical guidelines were in place, this study was repeated, and produced the same effect, in (a few) humans.

This type of positively reinforced behavior, where the behavior is repeated to the exclusion of all other more beneficial behaviors, is strikingly similar to what happened during and especially near the end of my emotional affair. Basically, I was “self-stimulating” my dopamine-producing neurons by interacting with LO, engaging in pleasant conversations, fantasizing, creating unrealistic expectations, etc. Conclusion: really, I’m no better than a rat. Others will find striking similarities between these behaviors and the drug-seeking behaviors of addicts. This is not surprising: most recreational drugs target the dopamine reward pathway in some way or another.

The powerful impact of dopamine-seeking behaviors on human society has led some to conclude that intoxication or “pleasure” is a basic animal/human need. In fact, although I haven’t read the book yet, the author apparently promotes the development of “safe intoxicants”. I think it’s a safe bet to assume that such a thing does not exist.

Now, what many people don’t seem to realize is that evolution, somehow, has given us the masterful ability to actually consciously control our dopamine release. Not only are there pathways leading from the dopamine-producing neurons in the midbrain to the prefrontal cortex (that beautiful part of the brain that gives rise to our thoughts, feelings and actions), but there are also pathways leading from the prefrontal cortex to the midbrain. This means that the prefrontal cortex is able to control how much dopamine it is receiving and is probably striving to maintain this amount within an optimal range (the prefrontal cortex cannot function without a certain amount of dopamine and noradrenaline). Too much dopamine, and you start hallucinating, too little, and you feel bored or stressed (a prime stimulus to pick up dopamine-producing addictions or obsessive behaviors). Basically, what I think this means is that if you are using your mind the way it was supposed to be used (taking full advantage of your personality type strengths and weaknesses), you will be “happy” and there will be no “innate drive” towards intoxication. It’s not going to be a “high” like the one felt when people fall in love, or the one induced by drug-induced and natural addictions, but I truly believe that the psychological state reached/maintained/felt will be even better. It will be characterized by an absence of emotional highs and lows, a state of being at peace with oneself and the world. I guess that’s the mental state some people call “self-actualization”.

Hooray for dopamine.