In an article I wrote on addiction several months ago for our in-house magazine, Stanford Medicine, I reported that the mammalian brain’s reward center - the complex of neural circuitry that guides our behavior by doling out or denying pleasure in response to the result of our behavior - does its work by squirting out (or withholding) various secreted chemicals, especially one called dopamine. Interestingly, the amount of dopamine secreted corresponds not so much to how “good” or “bad” the outcome of our action was, but rather to whether and by how much the result exceeded or fell short of our expectations.
I can personally attest to this. A few weeks ago I got one of those Ur-official-looking letters from a county government whose location I will not specify. In my experience, these letters almost never augur an auspicious outcome. But this one wasn’t too terrifying: It was a summons to report for jury duty.
So the other day I strode through a metal detector into the Luminous Lair of the Law. I’ll abridge my account of the ensuing bureaucratic shuffle and simply note that I was one of perhaps 100 prospective jurors who eventually filed into a large room peopled by at least five lawyers and several other court appointees. We were being considered for a case that, were I to be selected, promised to be hugely interesting. But it also promised to pin me down for an entire month, which would totally torpedo my long-planned, pricey, non-refundable and unrescheduleable 12-day vacation trip to Montreal, where my daughter temporarily works and where my wife comes from.
Once we were informed that pre-paid vacation plans might pass for a “hardship,” I began breathing easier. I filled out the one-page sheet stating my name, occupation, employer and excuse and submitted it (as did about 70 others) to the Court Clerk, who hustled the stack of forms to the judge’s chambers for his sign-off. Then, in two gigantic batches separated by about 10 or 15 minutes, she read off the names of those who’d been officially excused and could go home.
Every name got called but mine. Finally, the Court Clerk said, “Mr. Goldman, the judge will see you in his chambers in a few minutes.” I stared back at her like a trapped animal, privately panicking: Were they really going to blow my vacation and my life apart? Why mine, and nobody else’s? What had I done? What had I not done? What was I presumed to be thinking of doing? Wherefore art thou, Dopamine?
After a seemingly interminable wait, I got led into the judge’s quarters. He’d recognized me from my form and wanted to take this opportunity to say hello. It turned out we’d exchanged a few e-mails regarding my addiction article, which the judge had read and about which he’d had some questions concerning a personal acquaintance’s apparent addiction to food. I doubt I’d been very helpful, but he treated me with immense respect for the twenty-five minutes or so we spent talking.
This was a two-fer. Not only was I getting out of jail – er, jury duty – free. A very busy, very accomplished person had read something I’d written and liked it enough to stall a half-dozen high-salary suits for almost a half hour to tell me so. EXPECTATIONS EXCEEDED!!
At the end of our conversation, he proferred the crucial form, the judge’s signature properly affixed. My reward center squirting geysers of dopamine, I strutted out of his chambers, past the civilly suited pokerfaces, into the elevator, and out to the street convinced, if for but the moment, that I was above the law and distributing good medicine.
Previously: Better than the real thing: How drugs hot wire our brains’ reward circuitry and Revealed: the brain’s molecular mechanism behind why we get the blues
Photo by s_falkow