All drugs of abuse—nicotine, cocaine, marijuana, and others—affect the brain’s “reward” circuit, which produces the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine creates feelings of pleasure, and tells the brain that this is something important—pay attention and remember it. Drugs hijack this system, causing unusually large amounts of dopamine to flood the system. This flood of dopamine is what causes the “high” or euphoria associated with drug abuse.
Without dopamine, research shows:
- We wouldn’t be able to learn good habits (or bad).
- We wouldn’t feel good when we accomplish something difficult – and wouldn’t strive to reach for that next challenge either.
- We wouldn’t feel excited when we encounter a new experience, person or idea – and would therefore have no reason to seek out anything new.
It wouldn’t be hard to argue that, without dopamine, human beings might not be able to find any reason or purpose to their lives. If you can never feel good – why do anything at all?
No wonder frequent drug users may think casual or non-drug users are making far too big a deal of life, responsibility, accomplishment, praise and hard work. So long as they can keep the supply of drugs coming – they assume they’ll get all of the same rewards without any of the work and without risk of failure or disappointment.
Unfortunately, while drugs hold out that promise, it is a biological fact that they cannot ultimately deliver long-term. Worse yet, frequent drug use can actually slow down or stop the body’s natural production of pleasure-inducing dopamine. In this way, a frequent drug user may end up only being able to experience pleasure in their lives when they have drugs in their bloodstream.
Just like some people do amazing things, sometimes against incredible odds, to reach the pleasure that results from success – other people do sad, heartbreaking and inexplicable things in pursuit of the pleasure (however brief or overshadowed) that they hope will result from taking drugs.
For more information on the functioning of the nervous system and the effect that drugs can have on this system: Click here.