The Dopamine Sabotoge

In The Difference Between Pleasure and Enjoyment, we discussed the fact that our language has an impact on our ability to see the process of enjoyment, and to instead want to skip the work, journey, and pushing ourselves to the limit in order to receive the pleasurable object of our desires more quickly.

We know, of course, that this path doesn’t ultimately lead to fulfillment, but there’s something potentially even more concerning about it: it is possible that we are rewiring our dopamine system in today’s world of instant gratification and pleasure.

Let me start off by giving you some background into neurochemistry. Then, I will tell a story to relieve the pressure of all the sciency words before proposing my hypotheses as to modern trends in gratification.

It’s not hard for us to recognize that our brains can exhibit different states at different times and situations – a result of our evolutionary history. After all, the brain has to be concerned with different environmental stimuli when gathering berries or fetching water than when running away from a bear or running down an antelope – all things that our prehistoric ancestors are known to have done.

If you think about the awareness necessary when running down an antelope, the brain’s task is quite overwhelming, really. Running at top speed through a savanna with tree, roots, rocks, and dips in the ground, all while keeping track of where the antelope is in relation to you and your hunting group as well as predicting where it will go is quite the trick. The brain’s reaction to this type of stimulus is to produce neurochemicals that can drastically change the function of the mind. These neurochemicals – the main ones being dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, anandamide, and beta-endorphin – serve to tighten focus, increase pattern recognition, dull pain, and provide a sense of reward that makes continuing the activity ‘worth it.’ Because this particular article is about dopamine, I am omitting some other things the brain is doing, namely shifting brainwave states and undergoing a process known as ‘transient hypofrontality,’ as those will be discussed with relevance to education in later posts. For now, just know that dopamine, in particular, is what makes an experience like running (recreationally) autotelic – worthy of doing for it’s own sake. Thus, dopamine can be seen as one of the major factors in intrinsic motivation.

Of course, the dopamine system is also what is affected by drugs of abuse, like cocaine and methamphetamine, which function to block dopamine reuptake by a presynaptic cell, meaning more dopamine accumulates in the synapses of the brain and is taken up by the postsynaptic cell, causing the user to feel a euphoria. Methamphetamine goes one step further than cocaine by not only blocking reuptake, but releasing more dopamine from the presynaptic cell. The result, of course, is addiction.

Now, it is important for me to highlight that the dopamine spikes that we (humans) get from food, running, scrolling Facebook, or getting birthday presents are different than the spikes we get from addictive drugs, because the dopamine system is still functioning in a ‘normal’ manner (no reuptake-blocking compounds are present). This phenomenon speaks to the difference between addiction and autotelic experience. However, with reverence to The Difference Between Pleasure and Enjoyment, there are some important considerations that link together all of these dopamine-modulating activities.

In the late 1970’s, a researcher named Bruce Alexander began a series of studies that eventually became known as ‘The Rat Park.’* The purpose of these studies was provide a fresh take on the ‘addiction’ studies that were happening at the time; Alexander felt that there were flaws with the fact that the rats used as subjects in the addiction studies were confined to environments that felt a lot like solitary confinement at a maximum security prison, as who wouldn’t repeatedly use drugs under those conditions!?

He created an experiment in which he had rats kept alone in a small, plain cage with two water bottles: one with regular water and one laced with morphine. In the other cage, he created an ‘enriched environment’ – the rats were social (had other rats and families in the cage with them), and they had a number of obstacles and devices in the cage on which the rats could run, climb, and experience ‘risk.’ This cage also had the plain water option and the morphine-laced water. The rats placed in the Rat Park, it turned out, preferentially chose plain water over morphine-laced water. The rats in solitary confinement consumed far more morphine-laced water than the park rats.

But a vague question lingered in my mind. Our rats consumed much more morphine when they were isolated. This fact definitely undermined the supposed proof that certain drugs irresistibly cause addiction. But what does cause addiction? Why is there currently a flood of addiction to drugs and many other habits and pursuits? People do not have to be put into cages to become addicted – but is there a sense in which people who become addicted actually feel “caged”?
It turns out that the answer to this last question is “yes”. Or rather, “YES!”

Human beings evolved with and have a need for social interaction, exposure to sunshine and dirt, physical strain, risk, and challenge. These all give us ‘hits’ of the neurochemical cocktail that makes us feel human, that creates challenging autotelic experiences, that creates enjoyment rather than pleasure. Some of us are going to get those hits one way or another, and given a restricted view of the complete human experience, that way may be drugs, or may be our iPhones. The contented life, of course, would come from getting those hits from running 100 miles, climbing El Cap, or writing a book. That is to say, from doing things that are hard in the moment, but rewarding in the long-term.

Now, here again I must highlight a nuance. Drugs create an over-the-top effect produced by unnatural phenomena – the blocking of dopamine reuptake is the case we focused on earlier. iPhones, on the other hand, are creating massive spikes in dopamine in a natural way. This is where the difference between enjoyment and pleasure comes in – evolutionarily, pleasure wasn’t quite so easy to come across as it is today. There weren’t prehistoric 7-elevens full of Slurpees and Twinkies at conveniently spaced locations, and even just 15 years ago there weren’t screens connected to the internet in our pockets. Thus, while these pleasure-giving components of our contemporary society aren’t producing the same effects as addictive drugs, they are certainly creating opportunities to ‘get kicks’ with no effort required at any turn. Because these ‘kicks’ largely stimulate only the reward center of the brain (meaning they tend to modulate only dopamine without combining the effect of other neurochemicals like serotonin or norepinephrine created during exertion), they certainly have a different effect than the natural neurochemicals created by exertion or social interaction (which can be challenging as well as rewarding). Combine this with the contemporary environment in which our young grow up (being encouraged to play inside rather than outside) and the feeling of ‘being caged’ by society, and I think we have some issues worth considering for our youth.

Alright, now for the stories. Over the past two days, I have seen two of my friends who have kids. Both of these friends are, like me, hyperconscious of making conscious decisions about how to live rather than succumbing to the tides of culture and mediocrity; thus, they do not allow their kids to get screen time on a daily basis. Instead, the kids spend a lot of time outside, doing the things that kids do outside – throwing tennis balls, climbing trees, and riding strider bikes off ‘jumps’ in the backyard.

While at Travis’s house for a barbeque dinner yesterday, I noticed what his son Huck (the older son, at 7 years old) was doing. He was not yet old enough to want to interact with the adults at the dinner on his own initiative, but he also was not intrigued by the activities of the two other kids his age at the dinner – they kept going inside to play. Instead, he stayed outside by the adults and did two things the entire three hours we were there. First, he worked on a stack of white papers that were stapled together, writing intently with different colored pencils. It turned out that, as his mother told us later and he showed us, he was writing a book about pentagrams – all of the possible shapes you can make from five congruent squares. The second thing he did was throw a tennis ball repeatedly against a net that would bounce the ball back at him. Over and over, he would throw, practicing his motion and reflex time to catch the ball and throw again. His dad told us that right now he loves baseball, but can’t throw very well (he tends to ‘push’ the ball from his chest/shoulder rather than throw from behind the ear). So, that’s why he was practicing so much. He did it every day.

While on a bike ride with my other friend Chad, he told me a story about a rare treat that his kids recently underwent – the grandparents had decided to take the kids to a Disney Resort. As Chad was there, he looked around and observed many other kids, and the thing that struck him was that anytime they were close to leaving and the parents were rounding them up – or really anytime they were denied any type of momentary pleasure – they would go berserk. The number of kids he saw crying and throwing temper tantrums seemed too high for the amount of ‘fun’ they were able to have that day. Of course there are many factors at play, but the one he couldn’t help but think of was: “Of course these kids are going berserk, we just spiked their pleasure centers with the equivalent of giving them cocaine and then told them to come down from the high!”

Ultimately, Huck’s experience, while not the ‘over-the-top excitement’ that we (as human beings) like to see in order to know that we’ve provided someone with an awesome experience, does represent the process of enjoyment. The available evidence seems clear that this process gives us little hits of dopamine (and the other important neurohormones) that reinforce the positive actions that we are completing, and make us want to continue them in the long term. The destination of pleasure, though much easier for a parent to see in a particular moment, is not what makes human beings happy in the long run, and of course it spikes dopamine in much the same way that excessive sugar spikes insulin.

I don’t know (and I don’t believe science knows, at this point) what happens to the brain and the dopamine system in the long-term when we continuously use pleasure to spike dopamine to very high levels, but I have my hypotheses – I believe that either we become ‘dopamine resistant’ in much the same way someone can become insulin resistant, or that our baseline for gratification shifts such that the positive actions that give us small hits no longer excite us – much like a drug addict needing higher doses to achieve the same high.

If this is indeed the case (and again, I believe it is), then we would do well to reconsider our view of compassionate behavior for our kids; we would do well to create rules (or laws, should parents not get on board) limiting screen time for youth, and we should compel them to challenging activities and human-to-human, multi-generational interactions. We should avoid giving pleasure freely, whether in the form of food or passive entertainment, and instead work on building a baseline of resilience that will inspire healthful brain chemistry. We would do well to, for moral reasons, use the cautionary principle and scientific evidence to guide our parenting and teaching decisions rather than succumbing to the ideas that ‘progress is always good’ and ‘economic gain at any cost is worth it.’ This journey will be challenging for us, the parents and guides. So let’s enjoy it.

Alexander, B. K. (2010). Addiction: The View from the Rat Park. Retrieved June 23, 2017, from
Alexander, B. K. (2010). The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kandel, E. R., Schwartz, J. H. 1., & Jessell, T. M. (2003). Principles of neural science (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, Health Professions Division.
A helpful video on neurochemistry: SEIServices.(2014). Brain Reward: Understanding How the Brain Responds to Natural Rewards and Drugs of Abuse. Accessed June 23, 2017, from

*It’s worth noting that ‘The Rat Park” experiments had major flaws, including both the design of the experiment itself, and the conclusions drawn that the environment is the only factor at play in addiction. Modern science gets us to a place where we know that the underlying point of the studies (talked about here) is true, but that different genetics and different types of drugs do matter in addiction. We should, of course, always be wary of trying to wrap complex issues up into nice, neat little narratives.


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