What do chocolate, Facebook and wine o'clock all have in common?

dopamine lizard brain Sep 28, 2020

Our caveman brains are driving us towards them all.  Amazingly, our ancient brains push us towards them as part of our survival mechanism, thanks to a little thing called Dopamine. 


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter — a chemical messenger that carries signals between brain cells and communicates information throughout the body, and it plays HUGE role in our cravings.


When we have an alcoholic drink, dopamine is released and we get a little “high”. 


Lots of people think that because of this high, dopamine is connected to happiness – but it’s not.  Dopamine is actually connected to motivation and learning.


Dopamine is designed to keep you alive.  This is the chemical that’s also involved in movement, motivation and reinforcement. It’s part of the survival mechanism – it drives us to crave high energy foods (hello, Cadbury’s Family Size Bar), finding a mate and social connection (I’ll just scroll through Facebook a little longer …). 


Because our lizard brains know that these things are crucial to survival, it drops a little Google pin when you’re doing them, so you can find your way back.  It also – just to make super sure - releases a dopamine hit at the thought of doing these things again, so you’ll remember to do it again.


So now, even the anticipation of having a drink triggers the dopamine release in your brain, and drives you towards doing it. 


I remember having tough days at work and thinking, “when I get home, I’ll get the wine out of the fridge and the bottle will feel cold in my hands and I’ll pour it into the glass and I’ll get the smell … “ and all those things would make me feel better!  Hullo, dopamine!


Your brain’s strategy is to plant these markers all around these behaviours that make you feel good (that first glug of alcohol) and reinforce feelings of happiness and excitement so that you’ll return to these behaviours.


And because our brains are hard wired to avoid pain and push to pleasure, when we feel pain -  we’re stressed or bored or had an argument with our other half - our brains will drive us towards pleasure.  We know that drinking gives us that little high so if we feel bad, we’ll have a drink and I’ll feel better again.


And as you repeat that pattern over and over, your neurons wire-together-and-fire-together and that pattern become deeply entrenched in your brain.  And this is how strong habits are formed.


One of the problems with drinking repeatedly is that while drinking initially spikes your dopamine, your brain adapts and learns to “turn down” dopamine production by producing less of the chemical and reducing the number of receptors in your body.  So you can’t even feel it as much!  This is one of the reasons we have to drink more to get that high.


It’s our ancient survival mechanisms that are driving us to an activity that we want to stop doing or cut back.


Um, hullo?  I’d like to actually do less of this, not more, thanks Lizard brain!


Happily, there are ways of beating the Dopamine Trap, and we’ll dive into those tomorrow.


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