There’s no shortage of blogs, podcasts, and self-help books on the importance of dopamine for the brain. In fact, many portray dopamine as the secret to better motivation, sharper thinking, and lasting happiness. So how much of this is based in science? What is the real role of dopamine in the brain, and is dopamine really the key to better brain function?

What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is best known as a neurotransmitter—a tiny chemical molecule that carries signals throughout the brain. Outside the brain, it’s involved in blood pressure, digestion, kidney function, and more. Within the brain, dopamine is synthesized from an amino acid called tyrosine. Dopamine is produced in three parts of the brain, the substantia nigra, the ventral tegmental area (VTA), and the hypothalamus. Dopamine neurons located in the VTA interface with parts of our brain that regulate emotions and higher-level cognition. It is involved in aspects of brain function including behaviour, cognition, movement, motivation, sleep, memory, learning, punishment, and reward.

3 Myths About Dopamine
Dopamine has garnered widespread attention in popular culture, influencing our understanding of pleasure, motivation, and addiction. However, amid the hype, misconceptions and myths about dopamine run rampant, blurring the line between scientific truth and fiction. By unraveling the complex role of dopamine in the brain, guided by scientific research and evidence, here, we aim to dispel common misconceptions, explore its multifaceted functions, and shed light on how dopamine truly influences our behaviour, mood, and overall well-being.

Myth: Dopamine is good (or bad)
One of the most popular myths about dopamine concerns the idea that dopamine is either a good or a bad thing in our brains
and bodies. The reality is that dopamine is a key molecule across a host of pathways, but too much or too little are both unhelpful.
To this end, the idea that we should seek to massively boost dopamine levels or drop them dramatically is quite impractical and poorly backed by science. The research is clear: More dopamine doesn’t equal more happiness.

Myth: Dopamine is the “pleasure” molecule
Perhaps the most popular myth about dopamine relates to its reputation as the “pleasure molecule.” This misconception stems from older research that showed dopamine neurons activating in the context of reward, leading to the belief that dopamine was the reason we felt pleasure after engaging in a behaviour that may be risky or addictive. More recent research shows that dopamine has less to do with the experience of pleasure and more to do with anticipation and craving something. The technical term for dopamine’s role in reward circuits is “reward prediction error.” In essence, dopamine helps teach our brains when something is better or worse than predicted, so we can make better choices next time around.

Myth: You can “hack,” “fast,” or “detox” brain dopamine
Dopamine “hacking” or “fasting” have become popular concepts in wellness and productivity blogs. The basic idea is that we can easily harness our brain’s dopamine systems to make ourselves more successful, more focused, and generally better humans. Often, the concept is presented simply: By withdrawing from pleasurable activities and doing unpleasant things, like taking cold showers, we can “reset” our brain’s dopamine, and in doing so lower stress and addictive tendencies, and generally improve our brain function. The issue is that there’s really no science to back the claim. The inventor of the “dopamine fast,” psychologist Dr. Cameron Sepah, has even indicated that the concept has less to do with actual brain dopamine, and more to do with a catchy framework for tackling unhealthy and impulsive behaviours. 

This article was edited for length and republished with permission from

Feel-Good Activities

While it’s less clear to what extent our actions directly impact brain dopamine levels, we know we can positively impact the brain processes that are often discussed alongside dopamine. To this end, actions that can help enhance mood, focus, energy, and general brain well-being include:

  • Prioritize regular, high-quality sleep.
  • When possible, get around 30 minutes of exposure to early morning sunlight.
  • Use habit-change science to form healthier patterns of behaviour.
  • Eat a diet rich in a diversity of nutritionally dense foods (and avoid highly processed food).
  • Pursue regular physical activity.
  • There is some data supporting the higher consumption of the amino acid tyrosine (which the body uses to make dopamine) for better brain function. Tyrosine is found in higher concentration in beans, nuts, and soy.
  • Create checks and balances for time spent in unhealthy behaviour loops (e.g., social media scrolling, online shopping, online gambling).
  • Seek mental and cognitive health support from a qualified professional if needed.

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