Dopamine: it’s the process, not the product

I have bought a lot of weird stuff from eBay.

A job lot of uncleaned Roman coins, WW2 memorabilia and a roe deer skull complete with antlers, to name a few of my recent purchases.

These were all recent fascinations of my eldest child, who takes a hands-on approach to learning, hence the necessity for tangible resources that he can observe, manipulate and take into school for his class to gag over the smell and then shove in a box in the garage because he’s decided it’s too creepy (the deer skull).

I’ve noticed a pattern in his approach to these objects: for him, the real thrill is firstly in discovering a new topic that excites him, then in researching, comparing, evaluating and selecting the exact item he needs, and the all-consuming anticipation of waiting for it to arrive in the post. He says himself that he can’t think about anything else and I understand where he’s coming from as I do exactly the same, with dog training supplies, or vitamin supplements, or whatever is today’s big ticket item in my mind.

Unfortunately, by the time the post arrives, interest in that topic has often subsided, sometimes to the point where the parcel remains unopened, or the contents are shoved into a drawer to look at ‘later’ (and in our brains, really there is no later, only now/not now), whilst we return to eBay to look for fossilized shark teeth or heritage vegetable seeds.

For us, it is definitely the ‘thrill of the chase’ that provides the biggest rush of dopamine, rather than getting our hands on the prize. Apparently, dopamine has been misunderstood for a long time (like pretty much every late-diagnosed adult) – according to Scott Barry Kaufman and Colin DeYoung, its role is actually:

“to make us want things, not necessarily like things. We get the biggest rush of dopamine coursing through our brains at the possibility of reward” 

This means we get the buzz from the steps that precede the end result, and not necessarily from the end result itself – we might not even like it that much when it arrives (that deer skull again – it stank).

This is evident in my approach to writing these posts. Hours spent excitedly exploring the rabbit holes of research, where every topic links to another, every idea has roots in a different theory, every article has a plethora of references to investigate. I can almost feel my brain fizzing with the energy I’m generating. It’s the possibility of what I might discover. The resulting post generally bears little resemblance to my starting point but I will have gathered a multitude of starting points for next time and learned a lot of cool stuff along the way.

I must have, as Scott Barry Kaufman calls it, a very active ‘nerdy dopamine pathway‘; the rewards of research and learning outweigh the value of other types of rewards.

As with any kind of art, writing can be about the process first and foremost, with fingers crossed that the end product is decent enough to make you want to read it. I am making a deliberate effort to avoid censoring too much, or to edit out my authentic voice or change every third word for something that might sound more academic in case you think I’m underqualified. Which has given me an idea for my next post.

If only I could remember to write these down …

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