Perhaps it is just a great illusion, a trick played on me by my mind, but it seems like every week brings a new announcement that something is found to be a cause of cancer.  And then, it seems that every other week, something is found to stimulate the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

The cool part is that for years, dopamine has been suspected of inhibiting the growth of malignant tumors.  Dopamine is also related to the brain’s reward system.  Somehow, in our evolutionary origins, it had a strong role in encouraging us to eat sweets, groom one another, and have sex.  It is a main mechanism in how our brains learn to associate a certain behavior with an outcome. Dopamine also inhibits prolactin, a hormone associated with the wonderful relaxing feeling we have after sex.

One of the more interesting findings in dopamine production is that while a predictable reward stimulates production, unexpected reward stimulates it even more.  This is one of the reasons why gambling can be so addictive – we don’t always know when we’re going to win. The same is true for Sudoku puzzles, email, and twitter mentions.

Dr. Robin Dunbar, the same person that gave us the thinking behind the famous “Dunbar Number”, speculated that the social grooming behavior of primates (releases Dopamine) was the precursor to conversation and gossip. Or, as he put it, “language is just a form of grooming”.

“It’s a kind of grooming at a distance and, in many ways, serves much the same kind of purpose.  It allows us to make that all-important statement about commitment: ‘I find you interesting enough to waste time talking to.’”

Collectively Collecting

Another interesting aspect of contemporary social media is that it typically includes elements of collecting. We collect friends, plaudits, and sometimes even tools to be used on some sort of Facebook game called Farmville.  The idea that collecting is a mania or an addiction was recognized in the 19th century while the craze for collecting curios was in full effect.  Even Freud, the author of an influential theory of neurosis, was a great collector of art and artifacts.

This jives with Psychologist Susan Weinschenk pointing out that the latest research shows that dopamine is associated with seeking out and searching. So, I search, I get a result, and ZAM! I get a little shot of dopamine.  I search for that Hummel figurine of the ice skater on eBay, find it, buy it, ZAM! Again! (I’m imagining those shots of dopamine to be accompanied with some such sound effect).

Viva Las Vegas

People with Parkinson’s disease are short on dopamine.  Interestingly, when given medication to stimulate dopamine, many of the patients developed some nasty gambling habits. Nielson Media Research recently released a study that showed that in the UK, online gambling was still more popular than all of the social media sites combined.  Gambling doesn’t always entail money – many video games entail the giving of little rewards, even if they are just points.

Multiple Dopamine-Inducing Behaviors

Our current social media platforms all have one or more element that can be said to be related to the production of dopamine. It is as though our world has become, or perhaps always was, driven by dopamine-inducing activities. Perhaps this is our society’s way of self-medicating against those weekly announcements of carcinogens.

Unfortunately, one of the latest reports I read is that TOO MUCH dopamine can be carcinogenic.  According to the Livestrong website, “excessive levels of dopamine are not natural and can be quite dangerous. Harmful levels of the neurohormone result in a variety of symptoms depending on the location and cause of the increase”.

My guess is that everything in moderation is not a bad idea. Social Media is still a game-changing, life-altering, mind-expanding/blowing and new thing for our society. It is going to take a while for us to settle in and learn how it is going to best work for us.

Thoughts? Disagree? Agree? I’d love to get your feedback.