What is dopamine and how does it work in our brain?
Our brain works by transmitting information between nerve cells. Dopamine is a chemical that is secreted between nerve cells and it acts as a neurotransmitter. Our body creates dopamine and our nerve cells use it to communicate between them. Dopamine plays a vital role in how we feel pleasure, this chemical is unique to us as human beings in how we think and take action. When our brain is expecting a reward, dopamine gets released. When we think about a particular food item, sex or an activity that we enjoy doing, dopamine gets released.
According to James Clear as mentioned in his book Atomic habits, the Dopamine cycle works on the cycle of cue, craving, response and reward. Imagine you come across your friend eating your favorite chocolate, the sight of you looking at your friend eating it and you smelling the chocolate acts as a ‘cue’. The ‘cue’ makes you crave for having the chocolate for yourself. When you are craving for the experience of having chocolate for yourself, dopamine gets released in our body. The craving for having chocolate, motivates you to take the action of asking for the chocolate or buying a new one for yourself which becomes the response and when you taste the chocolate, it becomes the reward for your response. This cycle then keeps on repeating itself. Our brain then creates a neural pathway and it continues to work in a similar fashion for any activity that you enjoy doing, any activity that gives you pleasure from exercising to seeking sexual pleasure.
Why do humans crave Dopamine?
Dopamine is mostly regarded for humans as a ‘feel-good’ hormone. It drives us to seek pleasure and reward. It plays a significant role in motor function, mood and even our decision making. Dopamine plays a significant role in the evolution of humans as a species, it plays a role in survival and keeps us motivated to do things throughout the day. Craving for dopamine is natural and it is about how we use it in a healthy way. With low dopamine levels, you will not feel motivated to do things, with sufficient levels of dopamine you’ll be motivated to get things done.
Let us consider that you want to get work done for the day, you will need the motivation to get the work done. A sufficient amount of dopamine needs to be secreted in your body that will create the craving for you to achieve it. Without dopamine secretion it’ll be difficult for you to motivate yourself to do the things you want to do. There always has to be a proper balance of the dopamine secretion to help you survive and get through everyday chores of your life.
With digital advancement and technological innovation, the human race seems to have been on the loop of infinite advancement. The world around us has changed much but we continue to still live inside the mind of our ancestors. The brain that was craving and getting dopamine through natural fruits and things available naturally is now getting exposed to a boom of dopamine everywhere it looks in the digitally advanced world. With a digital device in hand we carry a grenade that can explode with Dopamine every moment. Let us consider using social media. Everytime you get a like and look at your notifications you get a dopamine spike in your head. It just makes us make more interactions in the social media platform as we get more attention and perhaps more likes. Let it be eating the fast food in the restaurants, the moment you eat it you get a dopamine spike. It gives you a pleasurable feeling and you’d always seek more of it.
How is dopamine-related to sustainability?
Every advertisement is designed in a way to make you constantly buy more. It’s an infinite loop that you’ll get stuck to. You buy a new cloth and you’ll find something else even more interesting and you’d want to buy another new one. While the older one you bought might still be fresh perhaps you would have worn it only once or twice most of the clothes that you own. You end up having a cupboard full of clothes with most of them you’ve worn only once or twice. Take buying food, now it’s very common to deliver food to our houses. The amount of packaging it involves to get food to your table is really high. You keep ordering food everyday and a new package is being dumped onto the landfill everyday. You look at a brand new product being launched and you buy it though your old one would be functioning perfectly alright.
So what’s wrong with this way of living? Buying more and spending more only adds more transactions and helps in growing the economy. Well that’s not the case. Everything that you look around as a product that we use in our lives everyday is made of a resource taken from the earth. Let it be a plastic chair that we sit upon, the wooden table or the electronic devices we use. The earth has limited resources available for our utility. The earth’s resources are not just meant for our usage but to be shared with all the species that live along with us sharing this planet with us. Each time we buy a new product several resources of the planet are taken as raw materials to produce the product we use. It will take a sufficient amount of time for the planet to replace the resources when we take the resources at a faster rate, then it means it is highly unsustainable and we will reach a point where we can no longer use the resource as it will be replenished by the planet.
We need to change the way we utilise the resources of the planet. What we can do at an individual level is reduce the need to use natural resources from the planet. Try to use products as much as we can so we don’t have to make new ones. But the current way of how we lead our lives doesn’t work that way. We are constantly being bombarded with ads from all directions to make us buy more. These ads trigger our dopamine craving, motivating us to buy more. The more you buy, the more things that are taken from the planet. We need to stop our craving to get new things to make us feel pleasurable. This craving is what is causing us to keep getting more things leading to unsustainable ways of taking resources from the planet. The craving that’s part of our evolution which helps us to survive is being triggered by multiple ways through fancy car ads, jewellery, fast food, fast fashion clothing and what not for this matter.
Nature is slow, it is patient and it does work on it’s own pace. The craving that we get needs immediate attention so we look for immediate ways in which we can give in to the craving thus creating a human society that is looking for quick ways to satisfy the craving. The craving doesn’t stop just once it needs are satisfied, it keeps asking for more. You have a burger and you’d long for more the next time you get this craving, then get a good looking shirt for yourself the next time you find something better looking you’d want more of that as well. This loop keeps ongoing and you’d be wanting more and more.
Can we solve sustainability if we can control our dopamine?
So would we be able to solve the problem of sustainability if we solve the problem of our ancestral craving? It is quite complex to think about. We cannot stop craving, doing so would eventually only harm our existence. We have to make systematic changes that need to start from individuals, be adopted by companies and strictly enforced by the governments. Humanity as a whole should keep the planet and the ecosystem in the centre. We must perform things in such a way that we take resources from the planet and we provide the planet with the time for it to replenish its resources. We should adopt the pace of nature, it is always slow and sustained. As we can’t change how the dopamine in our brain works we can use the dopamine cycle to be positive for us and the environment. We can start rewarding ourselves with things that are sustainably produced. Instead of getting carried away by the craving for our dopamine, we could use our intelligence and act responsibly. Before we make a choice, we just have to think for a moment where it is from, how it is made and where will it go when I throw this away.
More on the solutions in our future blogs.