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As an adolescent you are much more sensation seeking than as an adult. Want to know why? You can blame a certain chemical that’s pumping in your brain called Dopamine, the neurotransmitter of rebellion.
Dopamine is the “feel good” drug that rewards you when you do something you enjoy, which, in turn, motivates you to continue to do those things. There are many aspects that can trigger the dopamine in your brain. For example, doing drugs, having sex, eating food, or even just listening to your favorite song will elicit a dopamine release.
During adolescence you have higher levels of this chemical because your brain is testing its limits. That’s why teenagers feel the urge to rebel against their parents or other authoritative figures, and adults are better behaved.
That desire for risk-taking can still be emulated as an adult. Neuroscientists are gathering more and more evidence that adolescence continues well into your twenties.
Dr. Beatriz Luna is a professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Laboratory of Neurocognitive Development (LNCD).
Famously known for ending her talks by highlighting that “adolescence is not a disease but a crucial part of development,” Dr. Luna defends the right to be a rebellious teenager.
“Adolescent sensation seeking is how your brain gets to sculpt itself to fit your specific environment. The more you explore, the more information your brain has to fine tune,” she tells BTR.
Her laboratory is currently researching the effect of dopamine during brain development. She explains that what is currently being discovered is a peak in dopamine during adolescence that declines into adulthood. This period of increased dopamine motivates you to explore and venture away from the “nest” to start forming your own friends and partners so that you can forge an independent trajectory as an adult. Dopamine is the chemical that absorbs your life experiences and teaches your brain how to deal with those experiences going forward.
“As we mature, brain processes become engaged that say ‘you know what, I have the experience that I need, calm the hell down. We know where we’re going now, we don’t need to be on search 24/7,” Dr. Luna laughs.
Being married to a punk rock drummer, Dr. Luna says punk music is what makes her dopamine start pumping again.
“I’m 53-years-old, but when I hear The Violent Femmes I want to get up and dance like a teenager again,” recounts Dr. Luna. “That might be mediated by the fact that, thank goodness, I still have dopamine, it’s not going crazy all day long like in adolescence, but I’m still able to pump it out.”
Apparently, dopamine doesn’t only handle those pleasurable feelings. It also works closely with motor movements, decision-making, and memories.
Another neuroscientist, Charles Geier, the assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State University, agrees with Dr. Luna.
“These memories, when triggered, do change the moment-to-moment pattern of overall brain function for at least a short period of time,” Dr. Geier tells us. “It’s likely that music-related memories have a richer representation.”
To break this down, these neuroscientists are saying that the songs you listened to as a teenager, pissed at your parents for who-knows-what, have the ability to pump your brain full of dopamine well into adulthood.
Ever heard someone say a certain song makes them feel young again? It turns out the song is literally doing just that. While listening to your favorite nostalgic tunes it’s possible that your brain is literally mirroring the dopamine levels it had when you were a teenager, hence turning you into a teen.
“You are with your friends, you sing songs that mean a lot to you, and every time you hear it,” Dr. Luna says, “you just, all of a sudden, revert back to being that person you were when you first fell in love with that song.”
Dr. Luna thinks that could be the reason why oldie radio stations are always so popular, and why new songs with reminiscences of classic tunes often become popular.
Dopamine is a very powerful chemical that works in your brain for the rest of your life, even though it works differently as you become an adult.
“Really what changes with time are the overall levels and function of dopamine and how much we can internally control our impulses to pursue salient rewards,” Dr. Geier says.
Dopamine has a “sweet spot”—too little or too much can cause problems. Low levels of dopamine underlie diseases such as Parkinson’s, disrupting the ability to move your muscles, while high levels of dopamine may be a risk for becoming addicted to drugs. The prolonged use of drugs can then deplete dopamine levels, which in turn leads to using more narcotics to recreate that dopamine ratio.
What’s more, high dopamine has been related to schizophrenia, and in fact antipsychotics work by reducing its presence in the brain.
Overall, though, dopamine is associated with creativity. It helps parts of the brain that control motivation and exploration to interact with the parts that make decisions and put thoughts together, thus creating a person’s unique outlook.
Due to their genetic make-up some people inherently have more or less dopamine than others, but regardless of the baseline there is always more dopamine present during the adolescent period.
Dopamine was discovered in the brain during the late 1950’s, but only in the last decade has it been linked to sensation-seeking, motivation, and drug use. Now, scientists are starting to realize that dopamine levels can affect a person’s life at the drop of hat. It’s becoming so well-known that even today’s pop culture recognizes it as a force.
Take, for example, the lead signer to the popular New York-based band DIIV, Zachary Cole Smith. Though, thankfully now clean, he used to struggle with heroin. Just this month DIIV released their newest album “Is The Is Are,” which includes the single “Dopamine.” The song dives into the depth of how dopamine was affecting Smith’s life. By taking heroin, his dopamine levels would spike during his high, but in the long-term, hit dangerously low levels.
Ironically enough, if you listen to “Dopamine” during adolescence and then listen to it again as an adult, it can spike your dopamine levels and, in turn, make your brain feel like a teenager again.
So go ahead, play that favorite song from when you were 16-years-old on repeat and revel in the teenage rebellion–your dopamine level is likely reveling right along with you.