The Nerdy Dopamine Pathway

August 8, 2020 in Blog

Do you get excited and energized by the possibility of learning something new and complex? Do you get turned on by nuance? Do you get really stimulated by new ideas and imaginative scenarios?  You may have an influx of dopamine in your synapses, but not where we traditionally think of the dopamine flowing.

In general, the potential for growth from disorder has been encoded deeply into our DNA. We didn’t only evolve the capacity to regulate our defensive and destructive impulses, but we also evolved the capacity to make sense of the unknown. Engaging in exploration allows us to integrate novel or unexpected events with existing knowledge and experiences, a process necessary for growth.

Dopamine production is essential for growth. But there are so many misconceptions about the role of dopamine in cognition and behavior. Dopamine is often labeled the “feel-good molecule,” but this is a gross mischaracterization of this neurotransmitter. As personality neuroscientist Colin DeYoung (a close colleague of mine) notes, dopamine is actually the “neuromodulator of exploration.” Dopamine’s primary role is to make us want things, not necessarily like things. We get the biggest rush of dopamine coursing through our brains at the possibility of reward, but this rush is no guarantee that we’ll actually like or even enjoy the thing once we get it. Dopamine is a huge energizing force in our lives, driving our motivation to explore and facilitating the cognitive and behavioral processes that allow us to extract the most delights from the unknown.

If dopamine is not all about feeling good, then why does this myth persist in the public imagination? I think it’s because so much research on dopamine has been conducted in regard to its role in motivating exploration toward our more primal “appetitive” rewards, such as chocolate, social attention, social status, sexual partners, gambling, or drugs like cocaine.

However, in recent years, other dopamine pathways in the brain have been proposed that are strongly linked to the reward value of information. People who score high in the general tendency toward exploration are not only driven to engage in behavioral forms of exploration but also tend to get energized through the possibility of discovering new information and extracting meaning and growth from their experiences. These “cognitive needs,” as the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to them, are just as important as the other human needs for becoming a whole person.

How active is your nerdy dopamine pathway? Here are a few items that will help you get a rough idea about how strongly the dopamine is flowing to your more recently evolved prefrontal cortex:

  • I love spending time reflecting on things.
  • I am full of ideas.
  • I have a vivid imagination.
  • I am interested in abstract ideas.
  • I am curious about many different things.

Don’t understand why everyone else around you is so interested in sex, drugs, and money, and you get so turned on by stimulating ideas and learning new and interesting things? Now you have a potential answer: You may be highly sensitive to the reward value of information.

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