23/08/2013 06:28 BST | Updated 22/10/2013 06:12 BST

Is Your Dopamine in the Driving Seat?

While we like to think that we are independent beings in control of our own lives, a brain chemical called dopamine may be responsible for more of your choices than you think.

This much-misunderstood neurotransmitter, whose original function was to ensure our survival, has been somewhat hijacked by the modern world, meaning that more of us are likely to fall prey to addiction and other unwanted behaviours.

A common misconception about dopamine, that is only just being corrected, is that it causes pleasure, due to the fact that dopamine is released when we eat, sleep or have sex. The dopamine system is also activated by alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and illegal drugs.

2013-08-22-file000479413853.jpg We used to think that people could become addicted to things because they "liked" the dopamine-induced hit of pleasure too much. It is no surprise then that alcoholics and drug addicts have historically been thought of as weak-willed, or that they can just get better with a little willpower.

But dopamine is actually far more involved in the motivational system, and is responsible for "seeking" behaviours. Dopamine causes wanting, needing and arousal, whereas another area of brain function, the opioid system, is responsible for pleasure.

The dopamine system is actually stronger than the opioid system, and necessarily so, or we would all be too hedonistic to bother with doing the things that enable us to survive, like earning money to buy food.

The trouble is that we engage in seeking behaviours more often than we feel satisfaction in the modern world, which titillates and teases with artificially enhanced products and processes. The message of Western society is bigger, better, faster, tastier, sexier, sleeker. More, more, more.

Addiction in certain people, for example those who end up as alcoholics, is partially caused by a faulty dopamine processing system; but even people not predisposed to addiction by their brains can now fall prey to this constant "needing" and "seeking". Society is pretty much setting us up for it.

Dopamine peaks when the rewards we encounter do not satisfy us as much as we would like, and in our anything-goes world, we have built up a tolerance to simple pleasures. 2013-08-22-coffeeandcake.jpg Why would an apple satisfy us when we have been eating double-chocca-crumble-cookies? Who wants a plain cup of coffee when we are used to a mocha-loaded-cappa-frothy-caramel-cino?

The dopamine system has been shown to activate even when we do not quite get the reward we were looking for, leaving us in an insatiable loop of seeking. Think of how gamblers are encouraged to bet even more when they experience a loss that was "so nearly" a win.

So how can we overcome a dopamine-induced spiral and get ourselves back in the driving seat of our own behaviour?

  • Be Mindful: Notice how you really feel after eating a mountain of sugar. The chances are that you feel sluggish, sickly and somewhat disappointed with yourself. Does a shedload of caffeine really make you more alert or does it simply cause a slump later on that you need to correct with yet more caffeine? Does checking Facebook twenty times a day really give you joy, or does it cause a feeling of missing out or wasting your time? Be aware of how what you consume, physically and mentally, affects your body and your mind.
  • Back To Basics: Eat clean, eschew fake foods and artificially-enhanced products. To begin with, this will be difficult, but over time you can calm your over-active dopamine system down by being abstinent from the things that provoke it. This also goes for people addicted to email or their smartphones. Break the cycle of constant technology-checking and see how the quality of your life and relationships actually improves.
  • Practice Gratitude: Learning to be grateful for the simple pleasures and our easy access to the things we really need to survive can help us to stay away from damaging dopamine-antagonists. Take the time to fully appreciate the things you really need and already have at your disposal. The things that were made to give us real satisfaction, sustenance and joy.