Dads, Dopamine, & Derek Cianfrance

That last research article I posted has me wondering about goal-setting.

In our weird wiry brains there are chunks of flesh that are more-or-less devoted to goal-setting, reward-seeking, and the like. This is personally fascinating to me because pretty much never in the process of goal-setting or goal-seeking do I think much about my own biology. 

More so, reward itself feels pretty urgent:

  • once I get to my apartment after this workout I’ll be able to pull that cold water bottle out of the fridge and drink it. Fuck, I need to get to my apartment
  • This blog post isn’t going to get nearly enough likes. How can I get more likes? Maybe I’ll insert a cool picture. Ah, just imagine how many people will like this blog post! That’s gonna feel so good. I’m the man. Can’t wait for those likes
  • Damn, I’m still thinking about the water
  • 6.82$ is more than enough to get a delicious Snickers bar and so oh, hell yes, it’s time to walk to the gas station
  • only 4.5 days until payday
  • I got a free milkshake at that diner, so I definitely am going back to that diner
  • All of these likes that I’m racking up on my blog post feel so good but they aren’t enough and I want more
  • Need to drink that cold water that’s inside my fridge

We are tremendously lucky to live during a time where we can think broadly and deeply about what is happening in our bodies and our brains during these types of desires and impulses. Let’s take a case of reward that many of us have witnessed in one way or another: An alcoholic’s neurotransmitters surely float like butterflies and sting like bees, causing all sorts of dysfunction. The irony of alcohol is that even though it’s reinforcing, and even though it leads to all sorts of complicated goal-setting, alcohol in the long term can be very destructive. What earlier was a disordered exercise in scholarly skepticism is now a seriously important question: Why do humans set the goals that they do, and how do they achieve them? What underlying body systems are involved when goal-setting is going right or going wrong, and how can we influence those body systems? What aspects of our brain give rise to the tendency to misalign short term and long term goals?

These questions are serious but they’re honestly pretty dry. With a yawn, let’s be reminded of the basic science vocab that we’ll toss around in the conversation about goal-setting. In our everyday lexicon dopamine is appropriately associated with reward and reinforcement of behavior. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – What sets us aside from other mammals is our tendency to fetter and filter our desires through immensely complicated frontal lobes, enabling long-term planning and modeling of potential scenarios. Which scenarios (and behaviors) end up being reinforced is a matter of complex neural wiring, and the neuroscientist is one who wonders what biological systems are dancing about as mental models are constructed to achieve goals. Parenting is no doubt a marathon of mental models: There’s a lot that can happen when you’re toting a vulnerable child and a lot that you’ll need to be prepared for long ahead of time.

How frontal lobes, mammalian reward systems relate to cinema is largely a matter of interpretation. I’m actually getting tired but will make sure to come back to this post. Leaving it public so that I don’t just leave it rotting in the drafts folder

Instantiation of incentive value and movement invigoration by distinct midbrain dopamine circuits (Saunders et. al)

Cool paper:

Instantiation of incentive value and movement invigoration by distinct midbrain dopamine circuits

Never stop reading! This paper is pretty representative of the research I’d like to be doing within the next several years. Haven’t finished reading it but am enjoying it & wanted to post here. I’m noticing that when research articles or readings are really tremendously exciting I come to ramble about them before actually finishing them.

The lead researcher on this study is a dude by the name of Benjamin T. Saunders. He got an undergrad degree from West Virginia University, a PhD at the University of Michigan, and then did some postdoc research at UCSF and then Johns Hopkins. He’s now opened a lab at the University of Minnesota that came to my attention via a random listserve email from the U of M. They’re doing cool stuff related to dopamine, reward, etc. & I want to keep track of it. The techniques they’ll be using in the lab (EG optogenetic signalling) are things I’ve read about in class but never really read about in real life. And if they’re doing it over at the U that makes me curious about going to take a look at their lab.

So what’s with distinct midbrain dopamine circuits? Why should we care?