“Wo! I feel good
I knew that I would now
I feel good
I knew that I would now
So good, so good
I got you”

– I Got You (I Feel Good) lyrics by James Brown

Play or even just think about this well known James Brown song and I bet some part of you will automatically start a little foot-tapping or some serious chair-dancing before the conscious you comes back to the moment to look around and see who may be watching your antics.

You’ve just experienced your dopamine network, the “feel good” chemical of your incentive-motivation system. Dopamine is the brain chemical that consumes you with the promise of reward and moves you to action. All well and good when you’re listening to some favourite tunes. Not so good when you’ve just encountered your favourite donut.

The dopamine network is part of our lesser evolved, emotional brain which is all about immediate gratification. It will convince us this is the last donut on earth and we must eat it now. And it will urge us to do so with an insistence that seems linked to our very survival…because before deep fryers, electricity and ridiculously abundant food sources, it was all about our very survival.

When we look at this in the context of the addictive cycle, the dopamine network is more about wanting and desire, not the actual liking or satisfaction it promises. When we’re triggered, the brain releases dopamine to create the urge that ensures our “seeking” behaviour. This is what makes us work at, and often manipulate situations, to get our drug of choice. Remember, our drug of choice can be behavioural (e.g. shopping) or substance-based (e.g. eating). This is our impulsive self in action and left to our extremes, it becomes compulsive.

Referring back to Part 1 of this series, this would be the stage of me driving around to well-known haunts and collecting my predictable pleasure foods. Dopamine is what had me doing this plus crossing three lanes of traffic to pick up one more thing and then salivating at every stoplight until I got home.

And that’s the tricky part about being triggered. You can be stimulated by environmental cues when you’re out and about – especially by newness or novelty – or by minding your own business at home and just thinking about those cookies languishing in the cupboard (my sincere apologies if this paragraph gets you going). Even seemingly neutral cues, like doing some mundane chores, can get associated and wired into this network if you have habitually rewarded yourself here with food.

So why is this drive so persistent? Dopamine makes us believe the pursuit of our imagined happiness is the be-all and end-all. We wouldn’t make a very successful sugar addict if we had to wait for the sugar to come to us while we’re in the fetal position on the couch, so dopamine alerts our brain and mobilizes our body. It will even trigger the release of stress hormones that make us feel anxious until we get the relief from our fix.

Now here’s the big bait and switch…a conscious examination of such a fix often finds us disappointed at best, and at worst, ashamed that we fell for it, again. But when we’re caught up in the addictive cycle, we’re not having that present moment experience. The food we’re inhaling has more to do with past pleasures and distorted memories.

In my next article, I’ll introduce the opioid network which is related to the liking and satisfaction I mentioned and you’ll learn how these two networks reinforce each other. In the meantime skip the sugar, try putting on some more James Brown, and get up offa that thing (a.k.a. couch) and dance till you feel better.