The Reward System
From what modern medical science has ascertained, there are something on the order of 100 neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) hard at work carrying important messages throughout the human body. The “reward system” of the brain refers to a network (path or circuit) where dopamine (the reward chemical) travels around telling the brain and the body that something “good” is happening. The “reward” is a feeling of pleasure. That is the simple version. I don’t find it particularly useful to get more complicated than that.
What is meant by “good”? That is an interesting question. Actions that are essential to survival, like eating and sleeping, are regarded by the body as “good.” Sex, while it is pleasurable, is also essential to the survival of the family and the human race as it is the means of procreation. So we’re talking about the basic nuts and bolts of survival going back thousands or millions of years.
Good & Bad
But there are endless other activities and influences that people perceive as “good” which are entirely arbitrary and subjective: one person loves jazz and another prefers bluegrass; one person digs action flicks and another adores romantic comedies; one person is a strident Republican while another is a lifelong Democrat. Or one person listens to nothing but opera while another detests it. One person watches foreign art house films while another gets terminally bored during the opening credits. One person is a football fanatic while another is allergic to sports.
So what is “good” and what is “bad” is subjective and I don’t believe that modern medical science has really determined how that works. Even things like food and sex are open to interpretation. We certainly don’t enjoy eating something we don’t like, and sex can be associated with pain instead of pleasure.
Nonetheless, feeling happy and doing rewarding activities seem to activate the reward circuit, which gives us some hint that we should continue or repeat an action. For some, this means keep listening to country music. For others it means keep eating chocolate. Obviously, if one derived great joy from breaking store windows or robbing banks, he’d have to refrain from this activity as it causes too much displeasure in others to justify his “pleasure” – not to mention the fact he’d likely wind up in jail which he wouldn’t find at all pleasurable.
Exercise is one activity we know triggers positive chemicals called endorphins, which have the characteristic of being “feel good” and even analgesic (pain relieving). The “endorphin zone” or “runner’s high” spoken about by athletes and runners was just a theory until some researchers found evidence to back it up. Exercise is a highly beneficial action on all levels.
Drugs & The Brain
Drugs on the other hand introduce an entirely new element into the chemical mix. They trigger an artificial rush of dopamine. The drug taker feels a rush of euphoria, especially in the early stages of drug use. The dopamine returns to its normal level and depression commonly sets in. The flood of dopamine also causes neurons (nerve & brain cells) to shut down. As a person keeps using drugs or alcohol, their physical tolerance builds up, they require more and more of the drug, and their ability to experience pleasure (from the drug and in general) gets lower and lower. It’s almost as if the euphoria or the high are just side effects and the central action of the drug is to ultimately destroy the feeling of pleasure.
Stimulants like cocaine or meth speed up the body way past the normal level. Like revving a car engine and driving at maximum speed, the engine will burn up, tires will melt, etc. Just as burning a light bulb at its maximum will cause it to explode, these drugs accelerate and damage the systems of the body.
Depressants like opiates and heroin suppress the body’s systems to dangerously low levels. They deaden pain and in turn deaden feeling altogether. They bring about respiratory depression which means the person’s breathing is slowed or stopped. They too cause a degeneration of the body’s systems.
One might ask why people don’t just shoot up raw dopamine instead of taking harmful drugs. The answer I have found is that dopamine ingested or injected into the bloodstream gets broken down too quickly and doesn’t make it to the brain.
Natural Chemical Release
So the answer to naturally release healthy amounts of dopamine and other reward chemicals would be to engage in activities that are healthy and that promote overall survival. Exercise, getting enough sleep, eating right, taking natural and beneficial supplements – all these would promote healthy function of the brain.
Creative activities, the arts, industrious endeavor, family, teamwork, accomplishment – these are some things I can think of that are “good” and would contribute to the natural flow of neurotransmitters. Then there are the more subjective categories. For some it is Bach and Beethoven. For others it is the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. For some it is the adrenaline rush of skydiving or bungee jumping. For others it is a cup of tea and a good book. It is different for each person.