Dopamine — making us dopey?

 

“The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get.”

— Dr. Robert Lustig

I’ve kicked the habit. I have resisted doing puzzles online for nearly two weeks now and this time I think it’s going to stick. It was an embarrassing habit wrought sometimes of boredom, but most frequently of fear and procrastination.

It happened after attending a Kopriva Science Seminar at Montana State University a couple of weeks ago. The speaker was Dr. Robert Lustig, author of “The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains” and New York Times bestseller, “Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease.” 

Though Lustig’s talk focused on our eating habits and how they affect our brain function, he touched on the damage we experience as a result of computer use.

He posed this question: What’s the difference between pleasure and happiness? Have you ever considered this? It’s simple really: pleasure is short-lived, happiness is longterm.

So why is this important and how does this distinction affect brain function?

Imagine you’re eating your favorite food — mint chocolate chip ice cream, for example. Your brain gets happy because it’s being satisfied with sugar and fat and all the stuff that we’ve been trained to enjoy (yes, trained, but that’s another post about Lustig). That happiness you feel is short-term — once the ice cream is gone, the pleasure dissipates.

Let’s consider that same dopamine triggered by, say, cocaine. Lustig (and many others) say longterm dopamine surges damage, even destroy, the neuropathways that enable us to feel pleasure creating a tolerance to the triggers that make us feel good. Our solution? We use more, eat more, gamble more, do more puzzles. See where I’m going with this?

flying_brain_by_pixelnase

“The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get,” Lustig says.

Dopamine affects executive functioning or decision-making and perception, so we need a certain level of it. But too much dopamine and an addicted pleasure-seeking brain is unable to decide to “just stop using” because sensory information isn’t getting to other parts of the brain. When those neuropathways are damaged, it leads to deficits in memory, attention and problem-solving. Dopamine deficiency is also thought to cause Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, bipolar disorders, binge eating, addiction, gambling, schizophrenia and ADHD (right?), according to Psychology Today.

And there are studies indicating that online gaming, even simple computer use, produces that pleasure-producing neurotransmitter dopamine (and has other negative brain-altering consequences).

Yikes! Am I right?

I have enough trouble with my executive functioning … scared straight, I was.

My ADDled Brain’s ADDiction

“There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.”

                –Deepak Chopra

I admit it. I have an addiction.

I also have mild depression and anxiety — conditions not uncommon to people with ADD or women going through perimenopause, of which I have both.

Yay for me!

Though it’s not destined to destroy my physical health like alcohol or drug addiction, mine does feel self-destructive. It affects my ability to pursue my career and creative goals.

My addiction? Puzzles.

When I’m feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed and want to avoid work, I turn to online jigsaw puzzles, word games, crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

Side note: Nearly 1 in 5 American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Now substance addiction is a different animal than say, gambling or puzzle playing, I don’t deny that. Using alcohol, drugs or even tobacco has true physiological effects. But in terms of brain chemistry, I wonder how different those addictions and mine really are.

For me, I think doing puzzles calms my overwhelmed and sometimes anxious brain, much like a heroin addict who soothes his anxiety or pain by shooting up. OK, I admit, that’s probably a stretch given the physical ramifications of not taking a highly addictive substance, as in withdrawal, which is a serious health concern in and of itself. But either way, both addictions result from a lack of impulse control (as embarrassing as that is for me to admit about myself).

Self-proclaimed Puzzlecrossword addict Dean Olsher is ambivalent about crossword puzzles. In a 2009 interview with Melissa Block on NPR, Dean Olsher spoke about his book, “From Square One: A Meditation, With Digressions, On Crosswords.”

Olsher confirms my thinking about puzzle addiction. Reading from his book on NPR,  he says, “Entering a crossword is like stepping into the clean, white cube of an art gallery or into a church or a Japanese rock garden. There are days when solving puzzles feels like a practice — the next best thing to seated meditation … It is more honest, though, to think of crosswords as a habit, like smoking. It’s just something to do every day because it’s there.”

Soothing, right?

However, Olsher also asserts that puzzles “have an addictive, immersive quality that keeps people coming back for more.” Part Zen and part addiction, he likens them to their own form of mental illness.

Yiiiiiiiiikes!!!

According to an October article by National Institutes of Health, researchers found that “addiction’s power lies in its ability to hijack and even destroy key brain regions that are meant to help us survive.”

Healthy brains reward healthy behaviors, it says. Exercising and eating healthy foods switches on brain circuits that makes us feel good, so we’re motivated to repeat those behaviors.

When a healthy brain senses danger, it elicits a chemical release that prompts the body to react quickly — the so-called fight-or-flight response. According to a  Harvard Medical School article on depression, “Every real or perceived threat to your body triggers a cascade of stress hormones that produces physiological changes. We all know the sensations: your heart pounds, muscles tense, breathing quickens, and beads of sweat appear.”

But drugs and alcohol mask those chemical responses by hijacking the brain’s pleasure/reward circuits, the NIH says. Addiction sets danger-sensing circuits of the brain into overdrive, making an addict anxious and stressed when not under the influence, leading them to want more and more.

For substance abusers, it becomes a vicious cycle that has them using drugs or alcohol to avoid feeling bad rather than to feel good.

And those stress hormones? They are produced as a result of increased activity in the frontal cortex of the brain — lo and behold, one of the areas of the brain affected by ADD and depression!

If you’re tempted by something questionable—like eating candy instead of a healthy dinner or buying things you can’t afford—the frontal regions of your brain can help you decide if the consequences are worth the actions. But if your frontal cortex isn’t totally functional, as is the case with addiction, ADD and depression, you may not have the ability to rationally stop yourself from doing something you know won’t be good for you. I feel that. It becomes an intense struggle to control impulses. And, like any addiction, it gets in the way of living life.

But I can report now that I have cut down on my puzzle-playing over the last few months during which time, this post sat in my draft folder. Maybe I felt the need for some good news before I came clean to you.

I’m far from cured. I still take an occasional trip to my favorite online puzzles. But I’ve deleted games from my phone and I often stop myself when I feel the urge, so I’m getting there. So does PA exist — a support group for puzzle addicts?