The Dopamine Rush and Why Having Ex’s on Facebook is a Bad Idea

Ahh the brain, it’s a wonderful thing.  So full of interesting mechanisms that we’re only now beginning to understand.  One of those mechanisms is dopamine, a chemical all of us should be intimately familiar with.  What the heck am I talking about you ask?  Allow me to explain!

Welcome To Your Brain On Drugs

Dopamine is a chemical that your brain releases in order to get you focused on what you want.  Note that I say “want”.  This is important because dopamine is often confused with chemicals or reactions that simulate pleasure.  It isn’t.  Dopamine is to pleasure what hunger is to eating.  It’s what lust is to sex.  Dopamine is desire.  It’s wanting.  It’s not actually having.  It’s the mechanism your brain uses to tell your body, “I want this!  Get it for me.”

In fact, as late as 1953, two scientists by the name of James Olds and Peter Milner thought they had discovered the pleasure center of the brain when they were able to change the behavior of rats through the use of electrodes implemented in the brain.  These rats were willing to undergo pain and forego food just to get a little bit more stimulation to the area of the brain that controlled dopamine release.  These experiments were duplicated with human beings who again were willing to forego food in favor of a dopamine rush.

Desire Vs. Pleasure

In fact, Olds and Milner didn’t discover the pleasure center, they discovered the reward center.  This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for guiding your desires by telling you what you want.  It responds to certain cues by flooding your body with dopamine.  At that point, you capacity to make intelligent decisions is diminished as your body focuses purely on obtaining the object being desired.

This worked very well for primitive man who lived in a world of scarcity.  When the brain spotted something it wanted, like a piece of meat or a potential mate, it focused all efforts on obtaining that, even at the cost of other things.  That’s a good thing when you need to compete to survive and everything is short term.  Rather than overthinking things, the brain forced you to focus on just the thing you need to survive and nothing else.  Great solution for a primitive world, not so great for a complex one.

Sex Sells, As Does Hunger

Marketers have been using this trick on you for decades.  Why do you think restaurants smell the way they do?  Why do you think beer commercials have barely clad women in them?  Why do retailers use words like “while supplies last” or “50%!”?  All of these are ways of triggering your brain into a state of desire.

You walk by the Cinnabon restaurant at the mall, your nose sniffs that heavenly scent (which is artificially manufactured in many cases by the way).  At that point your brain, still thinking it’s living in a primitive world of scarcity, becomes fixated on obtaining sugar, a rare commodity back in the caveman days.  The brain releases dopamine, you become fixated on the object you desire and you lose the capacity to make intelligent decisions.  Therefore you eat a cinnabon even though you’re trying to lose weight.

By the way, current theory is that the effect of dopamine is roughly equivalent to that of being drunk.  That is, your decision making capability is the same while on dopamine as it is when you’re heavily impaired by about three to five drinks of alcohol.  That’s more than enough to make you incapable of driving, much less make intelligent decisions about spending or eating.

So About Those Facebook Ex’es…

Note – The following is not meant to imply that your marriage is weak or that your spouse is unfaithful.  This isn’t about your marriage or your morals, this is about your biology and your biology is very different from your marriage and morals.  

When you see an ex on facebook, your morals may be telling you no, but your biology is telling you yes.  Your biology remembers sex with that ex, it remembers the good things, not the bad.  Your brain says “yes, that sounds good, get me some of that!” and releases dopamine.  That in turn makes you the equivalent of a drunk person and do you know what happens when a drunk person is around their ex?  Yah, it’s not a good thing for marriage.

This is especially true for men, who have a biology programmed to reward them for mating with as many women as possible.  Our higher functions may live in a modern world where monogamy is the norm, but our lower functions (pun intended) live in a world where you mate with as many women as possible to make sure your genes are carried on.  So we see an ex, biology takes over and all of a sudden we’re flirting with them on facebook or asking them out for a drink after work, just as friends of course…

Basic rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t trust yourself around this person while drunk, you shouldn’t be around them while high on dopamine.  This is why you shouldn’t have them as your facebook friends.  Because you may be able to control your drinking (at least most of you can), but you can’t really control when and how your brain releases dopamine.  Ladies, this is true of every man, no matter how much they claim that their will power is awesome and that ex means nothing to them.

Actually, That’s Not Completely True

You can in fact counter the effects of dopamine simply by recognizing the tricks marketers play on you.  When walking by that Cinnabon, you can recognize that scent for what it is (a dirty marketing trick).  That allows your higher brain functions to override your base instincts and walk on without eating a thousand calories you don’t need.  However, this trick only works some of the time.  It won’t work when you’re tired or stressed.  That’s fine when it comes to Cinnabon, a rare sugar binge won’t kill you, but “works some of the time” is not good when it comes to those facebook ex’es…

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If you’re dead set on having them as Facebook friends, just hide their update.  It’s the picture of them unexpectedly popping up in your stream that will trigger the desire function and the consequences.  As they say, “out of sight, out of mind”.

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