The neurotransmitter of dopamine is probably one of the more well-known modulators to the mainstream because it is associated with many diseases such as Parkinson’s, Schizophrenia and ADHD.
In the case of illicit substances such as marijuana, also known as “dope, “ it gets its street name in reference to its effects on the brain’s reward system.
Dopamine is strongly associated with reward, pleasure and motivation. Dopamine can be released in the brain just at the thought of receiving a reward. In drug use, people have reported feeling rewarded before they even ingest their drug of choice. Just the thought of obtaining their drug is enough to release this cascade of the pleasure neurochemical.
In the case of motivation and reward, dopamine plays an integral role in the process of our goal-orientated behaviour. When we set a goal that has a desirable outcome attached, our brain will release dopamine in the event of achieving that goal. This release of dopamine occurs through the reward centres of our brains, and this is what gives us that sense of pleasure when we obtain what we set out to get.
Every time we feel this sense of pleasure, we are strengthening the dopaminergic pathways in the brain, and the more we reinforce this circuitry, the more likely we are to act on whatever it is that brings us the pleasure we seek. This can sometimes work against us in eating, drug-taking or seeking out excessive amounts of sex. The more we engage in these behaviours, the more we reinforce the neural circuitry to go out and seek the reward.
However, this can work with good behaviours as well. Let’s take a weight loss goal as an example. Say you want to lose “X amount” of weight by next summer because you want to be healthier and feel more confident in your own skin. Once you achieve this goal, your brain will release dopamine as a reward, and you will feel a sense of pleasure. But, to achieve this outcome, you will have to set micro-goals that help you achieve your main goal. The thing about dopamine is, it’s not only released when you finally hit your target, but it also gets released when you are in pursuit of your target.
The next time you make micro steps towards achieving whatever goal you have in mind, pause and internalise what you have done. When you finish eating that healthy meal or finish that session at the gym, or you tick off that task on your to-do list at work, reflect on how that micro-goal is getting you one step closer to your overarching goal. The brain will respond by releasing dopamine, strengthening those dopaminergic pathways in the brain that reward you with pleasure and making it more likely that you will continue to behave in line with achieving that bigger goal, whatever that may be.