Dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain, used to be neuroscience jargon — something you’d read about in a biology textbook. But today, dopamine has become a cultural catch-all, shorthand for focus, yearning, and joy.

Scroll through TikTok or sit next to a Silicon Valley software engineer at a dinner party, and you’ll be bombarded with dopamine-related life hacks. Struggling to stay off your phone? Maybe you’re due for a dopamine detox. Concerned that you’re not enjoying life like you used to? Try dopamine fasting or, for a quick pick-me-up, get dopamine dressed.

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But in reality, dopamine does both more and less than pop culture gives it credit for. While dopamine-driven wellness trends often hinge on its role as “the pleasure molecule,” most neuroscientists today agree that dopamine doesn’t represent pleasure at all — at least not directly. Its role in the brain is wide-reaching and nuanced, shaping everything from motivation to nausea. Outside of the brain, it helps to widen blood vessels, lower white blood cell activity, and more. Even plants make dopamine! 

At the same time, dopamine doesn’t singularly drive our productivity, our mood… or anything, really. Silicon Valley optimization evangelists say that if we can hack our dopamine systems, we can maximize productivity. This both oversimplifies the vast complexity of human brain chemistry, and overstates our capacity to optimize consciousness.

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“Dopamine is probably the most famous neurotransmitter in the brain,” said Kent Berridge, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan. “It has a long history, and a lot of baggage.”

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Berridge ran a series of pivotal experiments about 30 years ago in which his research group prevented lab rats from producing dopamine and observed the consequences. Without it, the rats couldn’t even move to feed themselves. But when hand-fed something yummy, the rats still liked it. Similar behaviors have since been reproduced in human experiments. So, even with zero dopamine, one can still enjoy pleasurable things; neuroscientists suspect that pleasurable feelings themselves are actually mediated, at least in part, by naturally produced brain chemicals called endogenous opioids that bind to the same receptors as synthetic opioids like oxycodone.

Read the complete article at Vox.