Welcome to Did You Know, a bite-sized, new column where we aim to make wellness more digestible. On the agenda for today: the unsexy truth about dopamine, the so-called “pleasure chemical.”
Myths that persist to this day: cardio is best for weight loss, caffeinated drinks dehydrate you, and dopamine = pleasure.
Dopamine is one of the more famous neurotransmitters, in large part because of its association with pleasure. Take the term “dopamine rush,” which is used to describe a flood of pleasure when, say, the package you’ve been waiting for finally arrives. It’s also believed that dopamine is necessary to feel pleasure, so people with low dopamine enjoy things in life less.
But that’s actually not accurate at all.
Sorry to all you dopamine tattoo-havers out there (yes, this is actually a thing), but dopamine does not create pleasure. It actually plays a lot of roles in the brain, including memory, movement, attention, mood, and motivation.
In terms of our reward pathways, when we do something that’s perceived as pleasurable, dopamine says, “Hey, we should do that again.” It tells your brain to repeat a behavior that brings pleasure, rather than directly causing the pleasure. Low levels of dopamine also don’t equate to not being able to enjoy things. Really, they just make one less motivated to work for things, as shown in this research.
TLDR; Dopamine really has to do with motivation and reinforcing behaviors, so let’s retire the “pleasure chemical” nickname for good.
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