Picture this. You’re playing a basketball match. In the last quarter, you have just 10 seconds to make the winning move. Jinking, you shoot – the ball rises lazily over the hoop. Just before the buzzer screams, you see the swoosh. Bull’s eye!
Cue a dopamine surge in your head. Firing signals to your brain, the vital neurotransmitter boosts how pumped you feel. Also flooding the brains of your teammates and the fans in the stands, dopamine fuels their euphoria.
You can see why science20.com calls dopamine “magical”. Learn more about the exhilarating motivational force that stokes your thirst for achievement.
Behind the buzz: 10 things you might not know about dopamine
1. Also called DA, dopamine is surprisingly tiny, consisting of 22 atoms. Dopamine works by unlocking the “motivation circuitry” in your head.
2. The chemical key to success was discovered by Swedish pharmacologist Arvid Carlsson in 1952. Five years later, Carlsson proved that dopamine was a neurotransmitter, instead of a bit-part precursor to adrenaline as most scientists thought. Now dopamine is today’s hip pop-science neurotransmitter, just as serotonin was big in the Prozac-obsessed 1990s.
3. Unlike serotonin, dopamine does not revolve around pleasure. Dopamine is all about drive and motivation. There is nothing “dopy” about it.
4. The word “dopamine” comes from Dopa – the amino acid with a scientific name like a captcha or password you could never remember: “C9H11NO4”.
5. The go-getter neurotransmitter is linked to the Type T for “thrill” personality. That means someone who loves to live on the edge. Type T people range from the comedian John Belushi to the gangster John Dillinger. Also factor in any adrenaline sports enthusiast you care to name – of any age. One topical example: Kiwi daredevil Wilmina van Hoof, 81, who jumped off Auckland’s Sky Tower, then had an ear-to-ear grin for 15 minutes, on “cloud nine” and then some.
6. If, like Van Hoof, you are Type T, the reason may be that your brain is low on dopamine-inhibiting receptors that act as a block. So each time you, say, ski a double-black-diamond, dopamine runs rampant, flooding your bloodstream. The resulting buzz drives you to chase the next sporting high repeatedly.
7. For anyone, everyday thrills also trigger a tingle. “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,” notes science writer Natalie Angier.
8. Even such a low-exertion event as crossing the street can spark release. If you push the button, expecting the light to change in 30 seconds and it takes five, dopamine gives you a stab of satisfaction.
9. Your dopamine levels slump in the face of stress, anxiety, starvation, trauma or just a low-carbohydrate diet. Feeling down? You might do well to amp up the “carbs”. Try pasta. Or bite into a chocolate bar. Eating chocolate fuels your psychoactive “opioid” levels. Cue a spike in your brain’s dopamine stock, which gives you your mojo back.
10. The downside of dopamine is that it can fuel impulsiveness. Binge-shoppers and serial daters living at whim may be driven by the potent neurotransmitter. Dopamine is double-edged, not quite the slam dunk feel-good force it appears. But don’t knock it. You need it to chase away the blahs: those wearisome motivational dips. Spice of life.