Hooked on Dopamine – The ‘Feel-Good’ Neurotransmitter

The worlds brands and tech creators spend literally billions of dollars trying to get your attention.

We are the “Attention Generation”. Dopamine plays a role in how they get our attention. But what is Dopamine and how does this chemical work in our bodies?

Nearly all pleasurable experiences involve the release of dopamine. Having a good meal, exercising, shopping and even drugs, gambling, gaming and getting a notification that someone has liked your post on Facebook.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made in the brain. Basically, it acts as a chemical messenger between neurons, and your brain releases this ‘feel-good’ chemical when it is expecting a reward. It determines whether we want to do something again. Dopamine isn’t acting alone. It works with other neurotransmitters and hormones, such as serotonin and adrenaline. 

The right amount of dopamine usually goes along with a pretty good mood. It’s ideal for learning, planning, and productivity giving you feelings of focus, motivation, happiness, and alertness. Low dopamine however is one reason why you can have trouble concentrating, poor coordination, and low motivation.

When our body is experiencing pleasure, it responds by releasing dopamine. This release causes your brain to focus more of its attention on the experience and it works out pathways to ensure it receives this feel good chemical again. Dopamine activates your brain’s reward centre. When the brain picks up that it may soon receive a reward, whether that reward be food, or likes on social media- a flash of dopamine zaps that reward pathway. Then you get another hit when you get the perceived reward.

For example, suppose your “go-to” comfort food is a bar of chocolate. Your brain may increase dopamine when you see chocolate in advertising, spot it in the pantry, you see someone eating it, or even if you think about it or get a waft of it. When you eat it, another flood of dopamine acts to reinforce this craving and focuses on satisfying it in the future.

It’s a cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement that causes us to seek, desire, and expect certain outcomes.

Now imagine that you’ve been longing for that hidden chocolate bar all day, but you discover when you get home that someone in your family ate it. Your disappointment might lower your dopamine level and dampen your mood. It might also intensify your desire for chocolate, making you want it even more (and send someone to the store!).

This can also happen when we post something on social media. We expect some likes and comments and we constantly check and get a dopamine hit if it’s going well. If it’s not, then that can cause internal conflict and lower mood feelings.

While dopamine isn’t the sole cause of addiction, its motivational properties are thought to play a role in addiction.

Experts evaluate something’s potential to cause addiction by looking at the speed, intensity, and reliability of the dopamine release it causes in your brain. It doesn’t take long for your brain to associate certain behaviours or substances with a rush of dopamine. That’s why people can get addicted to drugs, overeating, gambling, gaming, alcohol, caffeine and even exercise.

Addictive substances and behaviours can cause dopamine levels to spike, and over a long period of time, sometimes the brain weakens or eliminates receptors built to respond to dopamine which leads to us needing more of the drug, substance or activity to elicit the same amount of dopamine. This can steadily lead to us losing interest and needing something more exciting to take its place (for and extreme example; those that start out on marijuana can end up on ice).

That is why our phones are becoming an issue for many of us, and why we can easily get addicted to watching a show or playing a video game. Digital technologies, such as social networks, online shopping, and games, use a set of persuasive and motivational techniques to keep users returning. This is why we need to be acutely aware that technology in particular, is built to keep us hooked.

Notifications, responses and rewards are ruling our lives because this attention is addictive. Gaming creators call this the “compulsion loop”.

The Science Behind it?

Every time someone reacts to something you have done online, or you react positively to something someone else has done online, you get a dopamine hit. Dopamine is an addictive pleasure chemical, it’s like a hug for the brain. Who doesn’t want more pleasure chemicals and hugs? The negative though is that the opposite also occurs if we don’t get the attention we desire:

  • Decreased self-esteem/eating disorders and body dysmorphia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression/depressive symptoms
  • Feeling a lack of connection
  • Feelings of inferiority
  • Deterioration in concentration and other symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Researchers have found that addicted players of video games, regardless of gender, were more anxious and depressed, and showed poorer impulse control and cognitive functioning than gamers who were not addicted. Poor impulse control and poor cognitive functioning are risk factors for various kinds of addiction, so those with pre-existing depression, anxiety or under high levels of stress need to be mindful of this.

The brain, according to Dr Win Wenger, can consciously process 126 bits of information per second. However, the brain receives 10 million bits of information per second. That means we can only focus on 1/80,000 of the data our brain is getting.

Our brain loves to build patterns, and even though the brain makes up 2 percent of our bodies mass, it uses 20% of our body’s energy. So, if your brain has been in overdrive, it’s no wonder we can feel exhausted. This is where techniques like meditation, mindfulness, and learning ways to give our brains a rest and reset is really important.

Dopamine is the reward centre in our brains, and the challenging thing for 21st century parents in our high-tech society is our potential addiction to constant rewards, and gratification. Understanding how dopamine works is a great start to teaching our children that not everything in their lives can be gamified and rewarded, and we need to find lots of ways to get these lovely dopamine hits naturally.

Did you know dopamine is involved in many body functions. These include:

  • blood flow
  • digestion
  • executive functioning
  • heart and kidney function
  • memory and focus
  • mood and emotions
  • motor control
  • pain processing
  • pancreatic function and insulin regulation
  • pleasure and reward seeking behaviour
  • sleep
  • stress response


Learn more about Bree James here and read more of her PakMag blogs here.