What role does dopamine play in the love of shopping? Why has the evolutionary dopamine system become harmful to humans in modern times? And how have we, having invented new types of pleasure, trapped ourselves? Katerina Mikhaleva-Eger, PhD in Sociology, discusses this and the phenomenon of fashion in general in her book “350 Years of Modern Fashion, or the Social History of a Commonplace Phenomenon” (Ridero Publishing House).
Reward, pleasure and joy are interconnected and the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a central role. Dopamine is synthesised in many areas of the brain. But we are interested in the dopaminergic (i.e. dopamine releasing, dopamine for short) system, which operates on the basis of an ancient, evolutionarily conserved area of the brain next to the trunk, the so-called ventral pial area. From the covering, neurons go to the adjoining nucleus and other parts of the limbic system (this is the mastermind of our emotions), among them the amygdala and hippocampus. These are collectively referred to as the mesolimbic dopamine pathway.
The mesolimbic pathway is the pathway directly from the signal, via the receptor, to the emotion, bypassing the racio. In different animal species, the dominant sensory modality, whether auditory, visual or any other, has direct access to the limbic system. In humans, the dominant modality is the visual system. Through vision we receive up to 80% of all information. The cap also sends neurons to the PFC. And these neural projections have been called the mesocortical dopamine pathway – that is the pathway through consciousness.
The dopamine system is the body’s internal reward system: various pleasurable stimuli excite the tyre neurons, and they release dopamine in response. Thus, alcohol and drugs, cocaine and heroin cause the release of dopamine in the contiguous nucleus. If you stop the release of dopamine in the tympanic membrane, then the previously pleasant substances become repulsive.
What is interesting about our study is that the mesolimbic dopamine pathway is activated in response to aesthetic pleasure
And if we take into account our dominant sensory modality (vision), it becomes clear why a beautiful and fashionably dressed person causes the release of dopamine, i.e. we literally get pleasure from it.
There’s an economic aspect to this as well. In one study, people were given music to listen to. And the more excited the contiguous nucleus, the more likely people then bought discs of this music. So-called artificial cultural inventions exploit dopamine activation: for example, men like to look at pictures of sports cars because it activates the mesolimbic dopamine pathway.
I assume, applying the principle of analogy, as I am not aware of any real experiments on this topic, that exactly the same dopamine mechanism is switched on in fashionists when they look through pictures of a new fashionable collection of clothes – and here is the neurobiological mechanism of shopaholism ready.
Another observation: in all mammals, the dopamine internal reward system reacts violently to new experiences. But then it quickly gets used to it, turning the experience into a routine. The reason for this is this: during evolution, pain and pleasure served as our reference points for the brain’s adaptive strategy. In the struggle for survival, primates were often faced with pain and not often with pleasure. In the search for scarce resources, self-restraint was rarely, if ever, required – survival interests demanded grabbing every opportunity that presented itself.
Therefore, the dopamine reward system, which generates pleasure in us, is literally designed for short-term activity
Someone who hunted a mammoth would eat as much and as quickly as possible and hide the rest. However, in the modern Western world of abundance and availability of any goods, this dopamine system, formed by millions of years of scarcity of resources, often plays a cruel joke on us – it switches on very quickly, begins to dominate, which leads to natural addiction: some – to food (hello, obesity), and some – to the consumption of things. And here is another mechanism of shopaholism and the spiral of fashionable consumption.
But humans have something that other primates don’t. We have invented pleasures far more colourful than anything nature has to offer. Hominids once rejoiced wildly when they found an edible root to save them from starvation and were happy to wear the skin of a mammoth to keep out the cold. And now we see in the shops abundant food and clothes for every taste.
Once human life was extremely meagre, full of danger and hardship, but there were also natural sources of pleasure, though scarce and hard to find. And now people use caffeine, alcohol and drugs that cause such a powerful release of dopamine that it is a thousand times greater than the response to any natural stimulus. But the devastation comes regardless of the strength of the primary stimulus. It is inevitable, just as the brain’s habituation to any dopamine reward is inevitable. The unnatural strength of synthetic pleasure causes an unnaturally strong degree of addictive behaviour.
Two consequences follow from this. Firstly, we now barely notice the former natural pleasures: one dress doesn’t make us happy for long.
And secondly, people quickly get used to any storm of artificial delight: a colleague in the most expensive and elegant suit already on the second day does not arouse admiration or even envy
If we were purely rational beings and dopamine went only through the mesocortical pathway, our desires would decrease with increased intake.
But human nature is such that our brains are emotional, and the more we are given, the more we desire. More, faster, harder… And what was pleasurable yesterday, today we take for granted, and tomorrow it won’t be enough. That’s how our brains are wired to speed up the pace of fashion.
So, dopamine is responsible for the rapid addiction and reduction of expected rewards, including the value of fashion collections. But its role is even more interesting. In fact, dopamine caters more to the expectation of reward than to the reward itself. In other words, dopamine joy is the pleasure of anticipating a reward, of seeking a reward, especially if the chances of getting it are high.
People accept delayed gratification differently, and the difference depends on the “volume” of each of the voices in their personal dopamine chorus. For example, in people with painful impulsivity characteristic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is increasingly common in the modern world overflowing with various stimuli and information signals, an atypical profile of dopamine release was registered when solving economic tasks with delayed reward.
Addictions – drugs and alcohol – also shift the dopamine system, increasing impulsive behaviour. And this is again the story of shopaholism and impulsive consumption – a permanent desire to buy more and more new things, the most fashionable novelties, to update the wardrobe, although the wardrobes are already bursting with old clothes. This dopamine shopaholism is constantly fuelled by the fashion industry.