It’s a month since you committed to your New Year resolutions. This will be the year that you make things happen. Or, it’s the fifth day of the new weight loss program. Or, the first day of the, “I’ll be nice to people” project. How are you doing, so far?


That piece of chocolate is sitting in the dish, just waiting for you. It tastes so good. It’s your favorite flavor, shape, size and gooeyness. So why is there a struggle over a simple little piece of chocolate? It’s all going on in the brain. It is the conflict between dopamine and the “dope-in-me”.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is associated with pleasure or reward. When something is pleasurable, the stimulus (seeing the chocolate) relates to the pleasurable experience of eating the chocolate. It is recorded so that when the stimulus occurs again, dopamine is released telling the brain that this stimulus brings a pleasurable experience.

Dopamine has been identified as the body’s reward center, controlling the pleasure center of our brain while encouraging us to move towards activities that are more sensational. People with higher levels of dopamine are generally the risk takers. Individuals, who have lower dopamine levels, are thought to be more prone to addiction. There are thousands of professional and anecdotal articles that try to explain the dopamine response. This is the thousand-and-one short version!

Dopamine or “Dope-In-Me”

“Nine zero fox, you’re cleared for runway two seven. Winds ten knots.”

“Roger, D M control.”

It was a clear day with a perfect headwind for a quick lift off. It would be a nice trip up to Mt. Lemmon. I planned to fly out over the Coronado National Forest. It would take two 360 circles to get enough altitude to clear the 9,100 feet peak. I planned to circle the peak and then fly back over the desert to the airbase. This would be a comfortable, pleasurable (dopamine response) trip. The brain approved the trip. This was an acceptable risk of flying a small plane over a 9,000 feet high mountain knowing the skills and training of the pilot…me.

After the first 360, I was already at 10,000 feet. That was unusual but the tail wind had increased. It was blowing me right to the mountain. I had better be careful so that I didn’t get caught in the mountain current on the other side of the mountain. The dopamine said, “ but it would be exciting.” The wisdom said, “but it could be very dangerous if you get caught in that high wind mountain current.” The “dope-in-me” said, “but I know how to handle a mountain current.”

As I passed over the peak, my altimeter started to spin. Suddenly, I was losing altitude and fast. Airspeed was approaching redline. How could that be? I was flying straight and level. I was caught in the mountain current. Common mistake in mountain flying is that, when air speed goes up, you pull back on the stick. Nose up. But, in the mountain current, if you nose up, you will back into the mountain. If you nose down, to fly with the current, your airspeed may exceed the structural integrity of the airplane…redline.

In these situations, the pilot must fly out of the current. My instructor taught us that the wind does not flow through the ground. So don’t fight it. If you are caught, stay calm, nose level or down and ride it out. As the wind comes down the mountain, it must eventually go out to the valley. If you ride it out, and your plane does not break apart, you will be OK. OK? Are you kidding me?

Nose down and power. The noise was deafening. As my plane reached about 1,000 feet from the ground, the wind pushed me away from the mountain. The impact of the wind was so strong that it forced me out of my seat into the ceiling of the plane. Then quiet. Just the sound of the purr of the engine…and the pounding of my heart. The pounding in my heart was from the adrenalin response. The adrenaline response was from the “dope-in-me” response.

I flew out in the desert for about 50 miles and then circled back around the mountains toward the base. The wind current was too strong to attempt to get back over the mountain.


Eating the chocolate is a pleasurable experience. The dopamine moves us toward the rewards of eating the chocolate. The conscious neuro-processors suggest that you really shouldn’t eat the chocolate if you want to lose the weight. The “dope-in-me” response kicks in. It can override logic, common sense and right versus wrong.

The addict had a pleasurable response the first time she used the drug. That drove her to seek the same reward. Dopamine is depleted with each drug use and must be replaced. If the addict continues using the drug, dopamine is depleted and she will require more of the drug in order to get the desired pleasurable response.

Whether it is eating chocolate, smoking, using drugs or alcohol…or flying a plane in dangerous mountain currents, it is the dopamine response that leads us toward that pleasure or reward. As we get older, we seem to take fewer risks. We depend on wisdom to place the dopamine response in proper perspective. Is it less dopamine or less “dope-in-me”?

The dopamine response is not a bad thing. It is the reward center. It tells us that there is pleasure in helping someone, in going to a sporting event, in walking in the garden, in dining at a fine restaurant or simply sharing with a friend.

The “dope-in-me” response occurs when we discount the dangers, risks or penalties of a pleasurable response. Seeking pleasure/reward overrides wisdom. A walk in the woods can be peaceful and rewarding until a bear joins the walk. If you felt it would be a pleasure to meet the bear, then I guess it was a pure dopamine response. But it could also be close to a “dope-in-me” response…like a chocolate diet or flying a small plane toward a big mountain.

“DM control, nine zero fox, request to land.”

“Nine zero fox, you are cleared to land, two seven zero.”

“Roger, DM control”

“Enjoy your flight, Fox?”

“Don’t ask, Control.”

“Roger that, Fox. Clear to taxi. Nice day!”

Make it a dopamine day.

Dr L