Dopamine: The Most Controversial Hormone

If you’re watching this video on your phone, chances are that before I’m done talking, you’ll get a notification. A text from a friend, a like on a recent post you just shared, or a new follower or subscriber. When this happens, do you feel a rush? A sense of validation and excitement? We tend to check our social media, our texts, our phones in search of a reward. And when that reward doesn’t come and we are faced with a blank screen with no notifications, we’re left saddened and let down. 

We live in a constant state of anxiety, waiting for the next time our phones will light up so that our brains can be flooded with that rush of pleasant emotions caused by none other than dopamine, the most controversial hormone. On the one hand, Pinterest is rampant with photos of people tattooing the molecule on themselves. Fashion magazines and blogs flaunt dopamine fashion trends, bright, bold colors that can supposedly trigger the coveted chemical release.  

While on the other, there is a school of thought that dopamine is this evil hormone that needs to be stopped, expedited with exercises like the popular dopamine detox. But the truth, as with most things, is that the chemistry at work here is more complex than the extremes that the opposite sides of this fence would have you believe. 


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which are chemical messengers between our brain and our body. You can think of them like Amazon delivery drivers, getting packages to the right addresses through a complex web of logistics. They are involved in movement, memory, motivation, attention and more. Essentially, without them, our body wouldn’t know what to do with all its bones, muscles, organs and systems. And dopamine is in charge of our brain’s reward center. 

Our brains evolved this system to let us know when we were doing what we needed to survive and encourage us to do more of it. Things like seeking food, clothing, shelter or fighting off that wild animal. Today these things are, for the most part, readily available. So the brain has had to adapt to release this molecule in situations that may not be as life-altering. 


The rush you feel when you get that social media notification is not a fluke. Platforms like Instagram have designed algorithms that know our behavior. They know it so well, in fact, that they will sometimes withhold likes and deliver them in one burst to give us the biggest rush possible and leave us craving more, and more, and more. 


And Instagram is certainly not the only company manipulating our brain chemistry. Most companies out there are looking to control our dopamine levels, and therefore our behavior, through algorithms, marketing and other attention-grabbing tactics. Over the past several years, companies have been working to increase the rate at which people use apps by studying this neurotransmitter and devising ways to trigger it.


This idea is nothing novel. Silicon Valley did not discover the power of dopamine, it merely exploits it to a new level. Social media platforms use the same techniques that slot machines have been reliant on for decades, forcing us into habits we don’t even realize we’re developing. Our overuse of phones, social media and other technology, including slot machines, provokes unnaturally large rewards that overstimulate our brains and keep us coming back. And, before we know it, we can’t escape the cycle. 


This, of course, isn’t a feeling most of us enjoy. We know how dependent we are on our devices, but we can’t seem to cut ourselves off from them. We read articles about the tactics technology companies are using, but knowing about the effects of something doesn’t really make it any easier for us to fight. We simply know that it is bad for us, but we can’t help ourselves. We’re addicted. 


During the 1980s, scientist Wolfram Schultz was the first to show that dopamine is one of the major chemical players in addiction. In his lab, he placed an apple behind a barrier and immediately saw a dopamine response when the rat in the experiment walked around the barrier to bite it. This response of dopamine in the rat served as a motivator for the rat to eat again. Or, perhaps for this specific rat, to find another apple. And for us, to stay glued to our phones. 


Addiction is rooted in the swinging highs and lows of our dopamine levels. Like a see-saw, our brains are always trying to find a balance. So if we feel a surge of dopamine, a depletion of it, what we experience as a crash, is sure to follow. Drugs, alcohol and other substances create a huge, fast release that acts as a surge of energy, pleasure, happiness and relief. Imagine a child climbing the tree in their backyard. They make it up the first time, see the view and it’s thrilling. Euphoric. They’ve never been happier.


But once the brain knows that feeling is possible, it wants more. So, they go back a few more times. Eventually, they climb the same tree so many times that the thrill wears off. To get the same thrill, they now need to climb taller and taller trees. So they set their sights on a bigger tree across the yard. With repeated use, our threshold gets higher and we take more of whatever gave us that coveted feeling. That’s when things start to get dangerous. 


As an addict ups the ante over and over again, just searching for that initial surge, the drugs make it harder and harder for their body to produce dopamine naturally, which leads to emotional lows when the drug isn’t in their system. The see-saw of the brain is doing its balancing act, but the highs have become so high that the lows become even lower. It’s these lows that lead addicts to become anxious, depressed or worse. Of course, addiction is a spectrum.

We all experience it to some degree or another. And it’s not necessarily from drugs and alcohol. There’s plenty of other ways to raise our dopamine that are available at our fingertips. Some of us search for quick hits in coffee, which raises our dopamine and has the same effect on building up a tolerance in our brains. Have you ever interacted with someone trying to wean themselves off coffee? Chocolate raises it by 50%, sex raises it by 100% and nicotine by 150%.

For comparison, amphetamines, which are found in common prescription drugs used to treat ADHD, like Adderall and Dexedrine, raise dopamine levels by 1,000% in individuals who otherwise naturally lack it. For them, artificially raising dopamine levels can be necessary. But for many people, when our brains are flushed with too much dopamine, we experience crashes, similar to those an addict might encounter. 


How many people do you know who have said they’re addicted to their phones? Maybe you even count yourself as one of them. These addictions, however big or small, can take a real toll on our happiness. And so, just like with any other human struggle, there are people out there who have come up with a solution. Or at least something we think is a solution. The dopamine detox. This popular trend tells us to cut out sugar, social media or any other unhealthy stimuli that consumes our lives for days, weeks, even months, and replace them with less impulsive habits.

The goal is to rewire our brain and make it less dependent on huge dopamine releases. It has taken the world by storm in recent years. On TikTok alone, the hashtag #dopaminedetox has more than 20 million views, which is a little ironic. The practice is meant to help us step away from unhealthy stimulation, after all. A dopamine detox cuts you off from notifications, rings or texts. It puts emphasis on our willingness to simply be bored and not respond to the manufactured alerts in the palm of our hand. 


Dopamine detoxes are most popular among tech addicts, those of us who are sick of the sinking feeling we get when our phone is in the other room. But theoretically, the detox can be used to combat any sort of addictive behavior like shopping, thrill seeking or drugs. If we limit our dependence on the activities that are causing our highs and lows, then we should be healed. Right? As much as internet wellness gurus might preach the idea of ‘detoxing’ our brain from dopamine, science tells us that we can’t ever really get rid of it, and we shouldn’t even be trying to do so in the first place. 


Dopamine is part of our complex neurological system that keeps us functioning. And eliminating it would be disastrous to say the least. What we can learn from the trend, though, is to be mindful. To turn off our phones before we go to bed, to eat healthy, to be aware of activities that create that huge rush of dopamine and eventually leave us feeling like crap. As with all things in life, moderation is key to regulating our dopamine and allowing us to feel rewards in a healthy, balanced way. If we’re looking for balance in our brain’s release of dopamine, how do we get there?


The healthiest place we can be is in a flow state, the complete connection between mind and body. When we find ourselves completely absorbed and momentum comes effortlessly. We feel clear, passionate and miraculously undistracted.A flow state is getting lost in the book you’re writing, the marathon you’re training for or the project presentation you’re putting together. We lose track of space and time in the best way possible. No peaks and valleys. No cravings for that rush of stimulation.


In a flow state, our brain experiences a steady stream of dopamine that leaves us feeling level, balanced and energized. The bad news is that the flow state can be hard to find. For most of us, it’s not in our comfort zone, and stepping outside of what’s comfortable can be scary, painful even. We naturally want to find distractions to give us rapid dopamine hits that feel great, instead of sticking with something for long enough until we can immerse ourselves in it.


The good news, though, is that we are in control of our behaviors, even as much as those addictive notifications on your phone might make us think otherwise. We don’t need to be ruled by that rush we feel. When it happens, what if we told ourselves, oh, that’s just a dopamine release. It’s just a turn signal. In the end, I’m the one in the driver’s seat.