I’ve got a piece in The Observer about why dopamine isn’t a ‘pleasure chemical’ but how this idea is likely to stay because it’s too useful for the media.
It provides a simplified explanation for a whole range of behaviours and sexes-up science stories, regardless of whether it makes sense or not.
If there were a celebrity among brain chemicals, it would be dopamine. Supposedly released whenever we experience something pleasurable, it’s forever linked to salacious stories of sex, drugs and wild partying in the popular press. The Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters, it gives instant appeal to listless reporting and gives editors an excuse to drop some booty on the science pages.
There are too many bad examples to mention in detail, but I have some favourites. The Sun declared that “cupcakes could be as addictive as cocaine” because they apparently cause “a surge of the reward chemical dopamine to hit the decision-making area of the brain”. The article was topped off with a picture of Katy Perry, apparently a “cupcake fan” and, presumably, dangerously close to spiralling into a life of frosted-sponge addiction.
The piece goes on to mention another particularly bad example of dopamine reporting among many and explains why the ‘pleasure chemical’ cliché just doesn’t fit the science.
Unfortunately, one of my best lines (definition: I laughed at my own joke) got edited out.
The original line was “It was clearly just a smokescreen for the views of gun and, er, cupcake hating liberals” which has just been edited down to “gun hating liberals”.
It’ll make sense when you read it.
Link to ‘The unsexy truth about dopamine’ in The Observer.