Let’s Stop Killing Addicts

Misunderstanding the role of dopamine distorts how we view substance abuse

John Kruse MD, PhD
Wise & Well

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Polina Tankilevitch / Pexels

“Oooh, I needed that dopamine hit from those double fudge brownies! It really kicked off my afternoon.” As a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and science writer, part of me celebrates when I hear such comments. Decades of brain research seem to be percolating through to the general public. It’s encouraging that people are interested in learning the languages of the neurochemicals and networks that give rise to our feelings, thoughts, and inclinations.

But part of me cringes. Once again we’ve made the story too simple.

Many individuals equate dopamine with reward. They see it as the neurotransmitter that’s the source of all pleasure — and the scourge of all addiction. People rant about their dopamine hits, rushes, spikes, and surges, and explain away addiction as being captive to that powerful dopamine thrill.

Isn’t it okay for the populace to use a term like dopamine with less precision than a neuroscientist or English professor might? Unfortunately, imprecision distorts comprehension. Careless thinking about “dopamine rewards” impairs our ability as a society to adequately address addiction.

Overdose deaths in America exceeded 100,000 for each of the past three years, while…

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John Kruse MD, PhD
Wise & Well

Psychiatrist, neuroscientist, father of twins, marathon runner, in Hawaii. 100+ ADHD & mental health videos https://www.youtube.com/@dr.johnkruse6708