Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dopamine, that’s the ticket!

I’m so full of s– smugness.

I tell people that I tackle new challenges – surfing, singing, blogging – to help my writing students. Learning skills from scratch, I pontificate, keeps me in touch with their anxieties and difficulties when I demand that they try something different. Apparently complacency isn’t the only thing I’m full of.

In Managing the Middle-Aged Brain at the University of Victoria a couple of weeks ago, instructor Guy Pilch told us that learning triggers the release of dopamine in our brains. Boy, did I get excited!

After all, dopamine is also linked to sex, food and certain drugs which, I’ve heard, enhance pleasure. Life-long learning, here I come!

(Note: high-school teachers, please feel free to use this info to improve attendance in physics class.)

It’s not easy to check that I heard Mr. Pilch correctly, though. I’ve been trying to confirm my notes ever since, and articles on the Internet report things like, “The present review focuses on the hypothesis that norepinephrine and dopamine act as learning signals. Both…are broadly distributed in areas concerned with the…conjunction of sensory inputs and motor outputs. Both are released at times of novelty…” (Carolyn Harley, “Norepinephrine and Dopamine as Learning Signals” in Neural Plasticity, Vol. 11, No. 3-4, 2004).

That was the most straightforward one.

In Wikipedia’s item, I found “Dopamine is commonly associated with the pleasure system of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement to motivate a person proactively to perform certain activities. Dopamine is released (particularly in areas such as the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex) by naturally rewarding experiences such as foodsex, drugs, and neutral stimuli that become associated with them.”

Now, I wouldn’t have thought that belting out a high A or staying upright on skis is as satisfying as, for example, a good chocolate mousse, but I’m willing to admit I was wrong.

In fact, I’m downright happy to learn I was wrong.

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