Scientific understanding of dopamine is changing. In the past decade, our knowledge of dopamine and its effects on the brain has developed rapidly.
What we know is that dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in learning and motivation. It could be important for forming habits, motivating action to get rewards and generating curiosity.
Read on to find out more about what dopamine does in the body and how it influences your behaviour.
Dopamine is released during pleasant experiences, helping humans and animals to learn about the consequences of certain actions. When we experience something that feels good, the release of dopamine tells the brain that it’s worth doing again.
It’s thought that dopamine could be involved in the conversion of ordinary behaviours into habits. Disruption of dopamine supply in the brain has been shown to reduce the ability to form habits and disrupt other habit-related activity. At the same time, increasing dopamine in the brain has been found to accelerate the process of habit formation.
As dopamine has a role to play in habit formation, it also influences addictive behaviours too. The dopamine systems in the brain are activated by certain behaviours like eating and taking addictive drugs. Dopamine is the hormone involved in instant gratification.
When these systems are activated repeatedly, animals form habits for the actions that lead to a dopamine boost. At the same time, too much activation of the dopamine system reduces the sensitivity of dopamine receptors, which can lead to individuals being less interested in other activities.
Curiosity or the hunt for knowledge is a core part of human nature. Reading, searching online, experimenting and asking questions are all examples of human curiosity. This knowledge hunt is a key part of our decision-making process, as well as our social lives.
Scientists believe that curiosity is built on the same pathways in the brain as decision-making and learning. Research suggests that humans’ desire to learn more about the world is built on dopamine - but it’s still not clear exactly how it works. If you’re looking to study something new or learn a new skill, dopamine will have a role to play.
Putting in effort
Dopamine also seems to motivate humans and other animals to work for rewards. We tend to work harder if the reward is more valuable, for instance when it comes to making especially tasty food, working overtime to get a promotion or training for weeks to do a marathon. Dopamine influences all these behaviours.
Every action we take involves a calculation between the effort we put in vs the reward we get out. While research is still emerging, scientists believe that dopamine has a big role to play in generating motivation and putting in effort to achieve rewards.
So when you’re making a decision about whether or not to do that workout, know that there’s an important calculation going on in your brain and dopamine has a part in it.