Dopamine has become the decade’s “it” neurotransmitter, just as serotonin was in the ‘90s. But the popular image of dopamine as the brain chemical in charge of making us feel good, and hooking us on craving that feeling, a “Bacchus in the brain,” is misleading and incomplete, writes Natalie Angier of the New York Times. New research has led to the emerging consensus that dopamine is less about pleasure than about motivation.
“When you can’t breathe, and you’re gasping for air, would you call that pleasurable? Or when you’re so hungry that you eat something disgusting?” says one researcher. Yet in those instances dopamine pathways are at defcon 1. They’ll fire over something we desire, yes, but also over something we fear. And they serve another, lesser known function: They're novelty detectors. Whenever something around you is unusual or otherwise demands attention, dopamine makes sure you spot it. “You might not notice a fly in the room, but if that fly was fluorescent, your dopamine cells would fire,” she adds.