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Please stop calling dopamine an addictive rewarding neurochemical (2017) (psychologytoday.com)
185 points by kloch 2 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 58 comments





I don’t really get this article… it seems to make a good argument that dopamine is not the be all end all of addiction. Yet then it goes on to show that it is indeed a component of addiction, yet one of which is complex and still not well understood. So in essence, all this article is doing is complaining about pop science and how we often reduce complex behaviours to singular explanations. But isn’t that just a part of being human? The article argues that people are more complex and we need to look at addiction in a more complex way.

However, nowhere does this article speak about the efficacy of this pop science reduction. Perhaps it is human nature to try to solve complex issues by reducing the problem to something that can be explained to a lay person, even if such explanations are incorrect.

Personally, as someone who struggles with gambling addiction, thinking about dopamine in this “incorrect” pop science way has been incredibly useful as a tool to help me understand irrational decision making, even if such explanations are far more complex.

While we do need to guard against pop science reducing complex behaviours to singular causes, I am far more interested in whether it works or not. From listening to many personal addiction stories and hearing from clinicians, this simplified understanding of dopamine seems to be of major help to many recovering addicts.


> So in essence, all this article is doing is complaining about pop science and how we often reduce complex behaviours to singular explanations.

Not a neuroscientist - but I think what irks me about the common pop-science explanations is that they use those terms to establish a boundary between desirable and undesirable behaviours - but do so in a way that feels sort of arbitrary and dishonest.

I think when describing desirable behaviours or activities, we tend to use a more "cognitive" vocabulary that emphasizes a person as a thinking individual, capable of freely making decisions: Thoughts, feelings, memories, motivations, the self, etc.

Whereas when describing unwanted or unhealthy behaviours, we use biological or neurological vocabulary: Hormones, neurotransmitters, neural pathways, dopamine, opioids, the brain etc. [1]

This can create an impression as if those two sets of concepts belonged to completely separate worlds - where one is strongly associated with desirable effects and the other with undesirable ones. This seems very odd as both are simply different perspectives on the same thing after all.

It's sort of as if some highly nontechnical person was really fond of their car - as a magical device that lets them travel quickly and impress others - but believed we'd all be better off without batteries, fuel pumps or catalytic converters as those seem to cause nothing but trouble.

[1] The two big exceptions I can think of are advertising (where unhealthy behaviours are described using the cognitive vocabulary) and research on animals (where any kind of animal behaviour is described using the biological vocabulary).


Seems like some form of modern dualism -- humanity has always had the habit of attributing positive decisions to the non-physical "soul", "spirit", while looking down upon the physical body as tainted, corruptible or weak...

Dopamine, dopamine rush, etc are incredibly useful concepts that previously didn't exist in the English language. As you describe it's a useful mental model to explain your own and other's behavior, and as the person quoted in the article describes a so called dopamine rush is a palpable feeling.

The fact that the concept "dopamine" shares a name with a neurotransmitter is imho not that relevant and will over time just turn into an etymological curiosity. It would be better if it was named less confusingly, but that's not how language works.


If the neurotransmitter dopamine is just part of the story, I would even suggest that conceptual "dopamine" is perfectly valid so long as it's understood as synecdoche rather than a literal complete description of the mechanisms in play.

Maybe choose a different word then since it's obviously creating confusion and misconception about what dopamine does

Hey just a heads up, your account is shadow banned.

I can read his posts logged in or not...

Because I vouched

The ”dopamine rush” is more likely to be a noradrenaline rush.

The author addresses that in the last two paragraphs:

> Why does this matter? Can’t this just be chalked up to lack of media sophistication, and pop psychology misunderstanding the nuance? In fact, when people such as Simon Sinek, the author and consultant whose viral video blames dopamine for millennial's problems bring up neuroscience, they are using a clever strategy to manipulate us. Mr. Sinek is not a neuroscientist, and has not studied or researched the complexity of this aspect of our brain. But, he knows something you don’t: mentioning neuroscience is a great way to convince people you are more knowledgeable about something, and to make your arguments more convincing. This effect was recently demonstrated by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, who showed that use of irrelevant references to brain science was an effective way to lure people into thinking that complex phenomena are simple, and easily explained by, well, the brain.

> People’s problems are never simple. And when a person does a thing over and over, even when the behavior is causing problems, there are a great many complex reasons behind that behavior. When we offer the reductively simple answer of “because dopamine,” it distracts us from the person. It is the person who learns, and dopamine is merely a factor, one factor among many, in the learning. When we encourage people who are watching too much porn, using the cell phone while driving, or looking at Facebook every two minutes, to blame their problems on dopamine, we teach them to externalize the problem, and blame it on dopamine. Instead, if we focus on the learning, and the salience aspects of these process, it helps us to draw people’s attention back to their own behaviors, their own motivations, and the meaning that they (and their religious or social background) have given to this behavior or experience. It helps us to put people back in the driver’s seat of their life. So please, let’s start talking about people, rather than irrelevant neurochemicals.


How does the incorrect way of thinking about dopamine help you as a gambling addict?

I can imagine that remembering that your brain chemistry is part of what causes the compulsion is helpful because it takes some pressure off seeing the addiction as a character flaw.

But beyond just being a synonym for ‘brain chemistry’, can you say what the concept of ‘dopamine’ is doing for you?


> So in essence, all this article is doing is complaining about pop science and how we often reduce complex behaviours to singular explanations. But isn’t that just a part of being human?

You may be confusing theory with practical considerations.

Human beings desire to know the truth, at least by nature. What you're describing is an inaccurate, even false belief that happens to make it easier to cope with something by making something an easy scapegoat. It allows you to blame something perceived as external and impersonal which allows you to put some distance between you and the urge.

There's nothing special about calling this thing "dopamine". Classically, the passions are bodily urges that could be out of whack in some way (either excessive or insufficient or inappropriate), often through habituation or lack thereof, but possibly also made more likely through temperament. Failing to satisfy an excessive or inappropriate urge won't kill you (satisfaction might), and knowing that already grants you power over it because its urgency is now seen as a kind of bluff.

> Perhaps it is human nature to try to solve complex issues by reducing the problem to something that can be explained to a lay person, even if such explanations are incorrect.

Reductionism destroys the truth by eliminating everything it cannot explain and by representing what remains in terms of some desired language. It is a rationalization through preconception rather than explanation.


Not to mention that this pop science article does plenty of essentializing on its own...

Particularly when it laughs off the entire concept of individuals feeling their own dopamine levels before describing a series of commonly prescribed drugs to inhibit or encourage it... The author can't imagine people noticing the effects of their own psychs?


> Particularly when it laughs off the entire concept of individuals feeling their own dopamine levels

I agree the article wasn't great, but that line was clearly saying that the subjective experience of "feeling a dopamine rush" isn't at all evidence of a dopamine rush, since we have no idea what the individual neurotransmitters feel like in our brain (unless we've been somehow trained to recognize them, perhaps, through very controlled experiments with dopamine inhibitors).

Saying "oh I know dopamine must be important because I can feel it" is, indeed, absurd.

We can feel a rush. We can feel desire. We can feel satiation. And perhaps we have been told that these things relate to dopamine. So now we say we can feel dopamine. This doesn't add more evidence that it is dopamine.


We say all the same things about adrenaline, caffeine, sugar, tryptamines and phenetholamines: no-one seems to mind. Why can't we say the same about dopamine?

Maybe it's just the people I surround myself with but I've never once heard someone say they're feeling a tryptamine or phenetholamine rush.

As far as the other three things (caffeine, sugar, adrenaline) I think the argument is we have a better understanding and direct experience of those vs. dopamine. You can drink a cup of coffee and feel obviously caffeinated day-and-night difference from pre-coffee, but you cannot drink a cup of XYZ and feel obviously dopamined.


Anecdotally I think I do have an idea of how a "serotonin rush" feels. There's a particular feeling I get most noticeably when seeing the sunshine outdoors on an early morning that's pretty similar to certain feelings I've had from psychedelic drugs. There is a known connection between sunlight exposure and serotonin release so it seems like a reasonable explanation to me.

There are definitely some obvious commonalities among the feelings produced by dopaminergic drugs as well which are similar to the feelings I naturally experience when working on a big project.


> There is a known connection between sunlight exposure and serotonin release so it seems like a reasonable explanation to me.

Indeed, but I guess what I'm saying is that the feeling you experience isn't further evidence that it's serotonin.

Your connection between the feeling and it being serotonin is purely based on the studies that have been done. Those studies are the evidence. The qualitative feeling we get doesn't add to the body of evidence.

That is what the original author was arguing against. People arguing with her online saying "I feel a dopamine rush, therefore it's dopamine that I'm experiencing. You can't tell me it's some other neurotransmitter."


Taking 20mg of Adderall if you haven’t before is quite the rush of something, and I wouldn’t want to say “I’m having an amphetamine rush right now” because everyone would act like you’re on meth. Which I mean, you kind of are but still it’s perception.

It's not just based on the studies though, mainly I formed that opinion by correlating the feeling with drug experiences. I don't think it takes that much exploration before you begin to see the commonalities between them.

Sunlight exposure causes nitric oxide release (which itself will have downstream effects on neurotransmitters). That's probably what you're feeling if I had to guess.

FWIW the best way to get a feeling for what serotonin feels like is doing MDMA since it dumps massive amounts of serotonin out. It dumps plenty of dopamine too - it wouldn't be nearly as fun without that - but the unique "rolly" feeling is very attributable to serotonin.

Not advising people take MDMA just to figure out what serotonin feels like, but for those who have it's very helpful to sort of "recognize" what different neurotransmitters feel like


I think I tend to run a little low on seratonin and I know the exact feeling you're talking about. It's a gentle, pleasant sense that everything is going to be ok, that somehow still feels oddly artificial. Usually happens in bright sunlight, but rarely in other situations where it's really hard to figure out what triggered it.

Adrenaline is one that is more common for me, and impossible to mistake. I can literally taste it.


> We say all the same things about adrenaline

The distinction here I think is that adrenaline is equivocal and really is just synonymous with "rush" because we've attributed the rush to adrenaline. But it could be another example of the same error and thus something we ought not, strictly speaking, say if our aim is to be accurate.

I also don't think the way "dopamine" is used is quite the same as "adrenaline". The former feels like it's being used in a more technical and explanatory way.


yah, i have two little 'dopamine vending machines' in the form of a dog and a cat. it doesn't really matter if it's literally (and only) dopamine, but that the term grounds a repeatable and consistent sensation related to a dopamine cascade (otherwise we would use a more closely related term instead).

I guess for me as someone who takes Adderall it feels less weird to say “dopamine rush” than “amphetamine rush”. I’ve said that once or twice and people laugh, but in the way like you’re an insane person.

>So please, let’s start talking about people, rather than irrelevant neurochemicals.

Strange way to conclude an article that has quite successfully argued the relevance of dopamine in addiction. It's good to point out how reductive the dopamine narrative is, but overly reductive is not the same as completely false.

I also disagree with the idea that pinpointing a neurological mechanism for a problem amounts to externalizing the problem. Maybe because the author is a psychologist, and not a neurologist, that they cling to this mind/body divide...


> pinpointing a neurological mechanism for a problem amounts to externalizing the problem

I read it as "pinpointing a simpler reason to explain an often more complicated problem". It's easier to say "it's a dopamine rush" than "I'm on Facebook all day because I'm an insecure person and it's makes me feel bad and I don't know what else to do about it" (to mention a non-personal example).

An addiction has for sure its chemical reasons, but limiting to only that when dealing with it, it's reductive (my wife is a Psycologist and I heard arguments like these many times already....).


> An addiction has for sure its chemical reasons, but limiting to only that when dealing with it, it's reductive

Right, the point I got from this, particularly from all the examples pulled from pop science, is that folks are focusing on a reduced/mischaracterized biological mechanism instead of on the associated social behaviors. The social behaviors are the things we can (theoretically at least) actually change. Perhaps the author means to express that we should focus on whatever human behavior we think it problematic instead of "blaming" a component of the mechanism.


It's just that even with self-awareness, you're not going to dive into existential torment and intimate communication at every opportunity when "it takes the edge off" is a functional equivalent, even if you wade further into a swamp of denial with every utterance of it. The dopamine rush is just the latest iteration of taking the edge off, getting comfort in something that gives you some feelings short-term but is hugely unhealthy in the long-term.

Beyond that, an excuse is an excuse. "I doomscroll on FB all day because I'm insecure and I was abused as a child" (to use a personal example) can become just as much of an excuse as "I get a dopamine hit from connecting with my friends on FB." Sounds awkward when you first hear that, but then you keep hearing it, and it becomes normal.


I don’t think the article is about excuses but about finding reasons. Of course a reason can be used as an excuse, but I don’t think is the primary goal of attributing the causes to the dopamine rush.

No what the author is simply describing is that some mechanical process in the brain should not be taken as causative for some process at the level of behavior.

All behavioral processes manifest biochemically in the brain, regardless of the complexity of the cause. It would be magical if it didn't. If the local lead company pours lead into the drinking water every single affected person has extreme levels of lead in the brain. Yet, the correct conclusion is not to blame 'lead-brains' but the ultimate cause of the pollution.

The same thing is true for dopamine and Facebook. Even if the entire explanation was as simple as 'dopamine turns you into a facebook zombie', dopamine is not actual root cause at the level of behavior (that would be the incentive design of the social platform), dopamine is just a proximate agent.

people who buy into these simplistic explanations are actually the ones who engage in a body / mind fallacy. Anything that impacts behavior, regardless of how remote in nature, manifests in the brain, precisely because you are your brain, not despite of it.


I think this is exactly right. To reduce love to dopamine says it all. No experience lacks a neurochemical underpinning so any correlation needs further evidence of causation. One interesting animal study showed that the dopamine effects of cocaine occurred in different brain areas depending on whether it was experimenter administered or self administered. It’s all highly ecological and focusing on a NT is a cheap way to turn all human experience into a video game

Big appreciation to the doctor doing this work. Though not sure where this becomes pedantry.

Sure, perhaps some people use it to manipulate and sound credible. I've personally never taken "dopamine hit" to be interpreted literally, it's kind of a figure of speech or catchphrase to point to the complex interactions of various chemicals and hormones the doctor is referring to.

For example he noted one group saying "dopamine squirt", I doubt they think the brain is literally "squirting" anything.


The issue is, and the reason I submitted this article is dopamine is being grossly misrepresented as the tangible enjoyable feeling from an activity ex: "dopamine squirt" in so many articles these days.

I don't think the article touched on it, but an interesting point is that dopamine is not just the reward but also the anticipation / prediction of reward. And there's some interesting literature basically showing that the reward system of the brain is a prediction network of sorts and that the magnitude of error in its prediction correlates with how rewarding something is; that is to say, that how rewarding something is is as much a function of the expectations going into it as it is of the activity itself. (I don't mean expectation in the sense of the high-level ego's expectation of an event but rather of the lower level reward processing system's expectation)

Here's a reference on dopamine wrt reward prediction error: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.0024...

And here's one that kind of builds on that theory and proposes a sensory prediction error. Haven't read this paper yet: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2018.164...

---

Anyway as far as the article itself, the point that dopamine is oversimplified is very important but I felt the author did a frankly terrible job making that point. And they tied in a bunch of irrelevant stuff ("dopamine is a vasoconstrictor"...true but it's a bit of an implicit strawman to act as if the people talking about dopamine addiction think that its ONLY purpose is as a reward chemical)


Meanwhile, earlier today.

"Dopamine, Smartphones and You: A battle for your time"

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28850169


Since this article we're commenting on is from 2017, I think that the article you're linking (which hit the front page) is the reason this is posted.

was searching for this comment

Yes, popular movements get the terminology wrong, but the intention is correct. Dopamine is obviously a critical part of neurochemistry that isn't nearly as populist-simplified as "high or low".

But these movements and discussion groups get the intention and method right - much of modern economies is encouraging compulsive habits in one group of people by another for economic gain. Much of human progress is around getting us the things we want as easily and as without-resistance as possible. This is catastrophic for our sense of individual purpose and direction, but policy isn't set by something so unempirical


Exactly. It's a shorthand/ synecdoche to be used instead of rehashing the whole underlying discussion every single time.

Dopamine is commonly used in patients in ICUs in ways that are totally unrelated to the addictive reward mechanism.

It can function as a vasopressor in hypertensive patients, but needs very close monitoring (which is why it is usually administered in the ICU only)


> vasopressor in hypertensive patients

I think you meant hypotensive.


I’m not a fan of the overuse of terms like “dopamine” and “oxycotin”. They are often innapropriately technical and specific—the common intuition is that pleasurable things can be addictive,[1] and that is all that 99% of people mean when they dismissively refer to something as giving a “dopamine hit”.

We can just call things “pleasurable” instead of posing as if we know anything about neurotransmitters. (Not to offend the inevitable handful of actual neuroscientists that happen to be browsing this thread on Hacker News—carry on.)

[1] I have nothing to say about whether this is close to the truth or not.


Case in point:

> Dopamine is connected to rewarding experiences, but not in that it makes you feel good. On Twitter recently, a man challenged me saying that pornography “gives me a palpable dopamine rush after he abstains for a few days.” I replied that this was fascinating, and he must be a thoroughly unique and superhuman person, to be able to detect and discriminate the experience of different neurochemicals.


It is OK to use different words for different kinds of positive feelings. What people call pleasurable and what they call dopamine hit are to large extend quote different experiences. There is some overlap, but that is it.

We can call everything pleasurable, but then out language will loose expressivity people apparently want.


I get the criticism, but in culture we use "dopamine" as a magic feather for separating our self from our experiences so we can reflect on them, and this article is like a bird saying, "that's not how feathers work!"

They're right, but who needs to know that their magic feather is just a metaphor? Most of them are.


Diffuse modulatory systems. Dopamine is in equilbrium with NorAdrenaline, Serotonin, Aceytlcholine. These four chemicals neuromodulate the biology of the brain. A by-product of using these systems is Adenosine build up in the CNS above the blood brain barrier. The biological function of sleep is to reduce Adenosine.

Nordrenergic Locus Coeruleus, Serotonergic Raphe Nuclei, Dopaminergic Substantia Nigra & Ventral tegmental Area, and Cholinergic Basal Forebrain & Brain stem complexes

These are the 4 pathways.

Only way to fix dopamine is to regulate the other systems and downregulate D receptors. This can be done through a sustained increase in cardiac rate. RUNNING NEARLY FIXES EVERYTHING and diet. Use flux or some screen dimming program so the blue light doesn't screw with your circadian rythmns.

Note dopamine hyperregulation leads to changes in muscarinic M receptors present on the heart.

SOURCE: Iam a medical scientist. Have a major in neuropathophysiology.


I read some of it... what's the point here? Addiction is not yet deciphered in the brain, but it's definitely in the brain. Whether people call it serotonin or catecholamine it doesnt matter, addictive behavior does exist and there is a physical substrate for it, whatever you call it. Dopamine won't be offended for calling her that.

The problem with talking about behaviors’ physical substrate is that we can’t talk about cause/effect across the physical and social realms. Neurotransmitters don’t have causal effects on the “mind” any more than the wake of a ship has causal effects on its plotted course. Sure, dopamine levels change in response to addictive behavior, but they don’t cause it, and talking about causes in this realm is probably not as helpful or expedient as talking about cause I’d the personal/social realm. Reducing behaviors to neurotransmitters discards all the more complicated things we do during addiction like experiencing shame, changing lifestyle, eating, or sleeping habits, or even the higher level frameworks through which we rationalize and put value on things in the world.

Case in point: how can we possibly describe quitting cold turkey in a chemical framework? People do it all the time, yet it seems to be more of an act of moral courage than of basic, biologically driven behavior.

An insidious side effect of brain chemical teleology is that it victimizes us in an unnecessarily deterministic manner. “You can hardly help yourself, see, your brain is literally working against you by producing evil chemicals in insufficient/inappropriate quantities. Take $x mi drug to correct yourself!”

Instead of simplified and erroneous medical speak we might as well talk of the cold-turkey-quitter as having cast off a demon from their soul. At least in that framework the individual retains agency.


> People do it all the time, yet it seems to be more of an act of moral courage than of basic, biologically driven behavior.

All behavior is biologically driven. There is zero evidence of nefarious outside forces.


Addiction is present when endogenous forms of neurotransmitters are downregulated in response to sustained external supply. As such, the receptor regulation systems do not see a 'need' to self regulate and upon cessation of said 'sustained external supply' psychosomatic factors drive motivation (VTA theory). Having said that, there are chemically mediated addictions and psychosomatic addictions (the two are not mutually exclusive).

>> Mr. Sinek is not a neuroscientist, and has not studied or researched the complexity of this aspect of our brain. But, he knows something you don’t: mentioning neuroscience is a great way to convince people you are more knowledgeable about something, and to make your arguments more convincing. This effect was recently demonstrated by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, who showed that use of irrelevant references to brain science was an effective way to lure people into thinking that complex phenomena are simple, and easily explained by, well, the brain.

Er. So. Like artificial neural nets for example?


As someone who needs to take dopamine five times a day just to have my body and brain act something close to normal, I've learned to completely tune out people's memetic overuse of the word. I take it to mean just a hand-waving reference to brain chemistry.

In my case, it feels to me that dopamine is closely related to various feedback systems that the human brain and body use to modulate and control everything from limb movement to attention to blood pressure.


I loathe the conflation as the resurrection of the stupidest bits of puritanism, the kinds that caused people to say they want kings back. It is always used to immediately pathologicalize anything remotely enjoyable to draw a straight line between "feels good" and "addictive" to justify controling others. It plays the same paternalistic game self-proclaimed leftists love to play to manufacture consensus via slight of hand. Either the people you are "helping" either agree with you or their objections may all be patronizingly dismissed as being controlled by noxious external influnces.

> mentioning neuroscience is a great way to convince people you are more knowledgeable about something, and to make your arguments more convincing.

Eek, I have totally done this at a tech conference. But I try to do my hw first...


The absolute best review of what dopamine really does (mediate attention) and how that relates to the brain's function is this [1] writeup from Astral Star Codex on Predictive Coding. Predictive Coding is a theory of the mind which does a better job of explaining Serotonin and Dopamine's function than the more primitive ways railed against in this post.

[1] - https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/09/05/book-review-surfing-un...


Posted January 6, 2017



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