People talk of getting their “dopamine rush” from chocolate, music, the stock market, the BlackBerry buzz on the thigh — anything that imparts a small, pleasurable thrill. Familiar agents of vice like cocaine, methamphetamine, alcohol and nicotine are known to stimulate the brain’s dopamine circuits, as do increasingly popular stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin.
In the communal imagination, dopamine is about rewards, and feeling good, and wanting to feel good again, and if you don’t watch out, you’ll be hooked, a slave to the pleasure lines cruising through your brain. Hey, why do you think they call it dopamine?
Yet as new research on dopamine-deficient mice and other studies reveal, the image of dopamine as our little Bacchus in the brain is misleading…
In the emerging view, discussed in part at the Society for Neuroscience meeting last week in Chicago, dopamine is less about pleasure and reward than about drive and motivation, about figuring out what you have to do to survive and then doing it. “When you can’t breathe, and you’re gasping for air, would you call that pleasurable?” said Nora D. Volkow, a dopamine researcher and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Or when you’re so hungry that you eat something disgusting, is that pleasurable?”
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