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Brain Candy: The Dopamine Reward System

by | Jan 4, 2023 | Blog, Science

All of us have favorite songs. They might calm us, or fill us with energy, but there’s something about them…. When we reach our favorite part, it just feels so good! It’s the reason our favorite musicians just have to play ‘that song’ in concert – or we feel let down. The brain releases dopamine 15 seconds before that moment of ‘peak pleasure,’ when we listen to that piece of music that we know and enjoy. We wait for our favorite part, anticipating what comes next as the music engages and rewards us.

Dopamine is like an addictive energy candy that our brain manufactures to reward us by making us feel good. We are constantly motivated to seek out more of this neurotransmitter that’s been described as a rush of warmth, a wave of euphoria, or a tingling burst of energy.

Dopamine is stimulated in the brain’s mesolimbic pathway, traveling between the parts of the brain connected to feelings, emotions, and decision-making. This system is designed to reward healthy behaviors, such as being involved in a good relationship, eating well, or listening to a favorite piece of music. Dopamine is released in response to activities that promote healthy growth, which makes us want to engage in more healthy behaviors.

When an infant is born into a loving, nurturing family, s/he learns to pair human contact with dopamine, leading to more social support and greater interconnection. Ideally, early relationships are so rewarding that the dopamine system increasingly learns to connect relationships with feeling good. The child naturally begins to develop a larger, healthy system of social support, strengthening and widening this dopamine feedback loop.

When an infant is born into a dysfunctional, traumatic family environment (on the path to accumulating a high ACE score), the dopamine system takes a very different route. If the brain determines that relationships serve a threatening or unhealthy function, they are not paired with a dopamine reward. The result is that these children grow up to become adults who don’t find pleasure in relationships. Any interactions, connections, or even friendships that they might have can be emotionally taxing and draining.

If the brain doesn’t pair dopamine with healthy behaviors and healthy relationships, it seeks out other ways to stimulate the dopamine reward system. It finds other ways to feel good: Drug or alcohol abuse, compulsive sex, overeating, gambling, shopping, becoming a ‘workaholic,’ among other things. Every addictive drug and behavior stimulates the mesolimbic pathway and release dopamine. Social disconnection stimulates the brain’s stress response systems, making it more likely to seek out unhealthy sources of dopamine. Each addictive behavior gains in strength as the reward pathway becomes activated more frequently. Repeated positive social engagement, like that found in CalmConnect, (particularly for those who have felt isolated), can stimulate production of dopamine, leading to greater interconnection.