Dopamine is a chemical messenger produced deep in the brain that induces feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. Whether from a perfectly executed instrument approach, a productive workday, a glass of wine, a hunk of chocolate, or contact with a loved one, a real and positive stimulus provokes a response encouraging one to repeat the actions that have produced this chemical reward. If dopamine production drops off, Parkinson’s disease may follow, and if too much dopamine is registered by the brain, aggressive, addictive and other aberrant behaviors ensue, together with degradation of personality, mood, and sleep, possibly declining into psychosis and other serious mental illness.
Eschewing stress, regular, nourishing sleep, a diet rich in L-Tyrosine (required to make dopamine and found in eggs, avocados, chicken, and almonds, for instance), avoiding sugar, and maintaining a healthy weight certainly help. A positive mental attitude and being alert to signs of addiction—and seeking help early—can forestall problems. Should Parkinson’s develop, there are treatments available (“Sparring with Parkinson’s,” AOPA Pilot magazine, August 2017, page 26).
Oxytocin is a hormone, also produced in the brain and found in both sexes. It stimulates uterine contractions in childbirth, facilitates breastfeeding and is also released during emotional and sexual connections, thereby gaining the epithet “the love hormone.” Like dopamine, it can be part of a loop effect, leading to more and more oxytocin flooding the body, inducing feelings of connection, trust, and empowerment. Unlike dopamine, however, we are not as clear about what happens if there is too little oxytocin, other than that women may have issues with delivery, where a supplemental oxytocin injection may be required, or with initiating breastfeeding. Low levels may trigger social anxiety, autism, and depression in men and women. Simply stroking a pet, giving or receiving a hug, or partaking in thrilling activities like flying can stimulate oxytocin release. Too much oxytocin might lead to an enlarged prostate and antisocial characteristics. But one can never have enough flying!
The amygdala (Greek for “almond” because they resemble these nuts) are peanut-sized parts of the brain, one on each side, involved in learning, emotions, and behaviors. They are largely affected by fear-provoking stimuli, hence the amygdala’s value to our survival both individually and as a species. This leads to the potential for a pleasing experience (alcohol, cocaine, gambling) to become an addiction, and for stimuli associated with distressing experiences to trigger phobias, panic disorders, PTSD, and other mental illnesses. For instance, a warrior may have been injured in an explosion, and subsequently any loud noise will force the amygdala into action because it is involved in these automatic survival, “fight-or-flight” mechanisms (“Afterburners and Burnout,” October 1, 2022 https://pilot-protection-services.aopa.org/news/2022/october/01/after-burners-and-burnout). The amygdala are located very near the “smell brain,” which might explain why aromas are especially powerful at provoking memories and emotions.
I was inspired to discuss DOA by a statement in Jamie Wheal’s magnificent opus Recapture the Rapture: Rethinking God, Sex and Death in a World That’s Lost Its Mind. Mr. Wheal is a brilliant thinker, weaving together seemingly disparate themes and proposing alluring concepts. However, D.O.A are not disparate; they are intimately intertwined. Wheal observes that every time we “listen to that amygdala alarm clock and find something ...that might make or break us—we get a strong squirt of dopamine.” Oxytocin, meanwhile, is facilitating message transfer in the brain and confirming whatever the amygdala is saying, the ultimate virtuous circle. When we learn to walk, to write, to fly, correct inputs are rewarded and imprinted, and erroneous acts are identified and corrected so that they do not become bad habits; your old flight instructor was correct.
Setting DOA loose on specious ideas and actions is risky, because your amygdala cannot differentiate between real and imagined; both become “fact” and provoke responses, sometimes with unintended consequences.
We are all familiar with how attached people are to their mobile phones. Every cityscape includes throngs holding on to their devices for dear life, constantly checking the screen, and every time they do, another shot of dopamine, another dose of oxytocin, another flexing of the amygdala muscle. And this addiction can also be fatal; in some territories, handheld devices and/or texting are forbidden while driving, but there is no total ban, and fatalities from such distractions are sadly not uncommon. Everyone knows this is a bad idea, but they still do it. And how about this? I was recently told about a pilot who admitted to texting while driving, whether it would be acceptable to chat with their significant other by video with their phone attached to the yoke “just during taxiing until lining up for departure.” We all know that a 7500 squawk means hijack, and the condition I have described merits this code; this pilot’s amygdala has been hijacked by the dopamine-oxytocin reward loop and he is addicted. Addiction to alcohol can obviously impair and harm a pilot and their passengers. So can this addiction, leading to the first definition I gave for DOA in this article.
Wheal also correctly correlates too much dopamine with apophenia, a condition whereby individuals see non-existent connections between totally unrelated things. Spurious correlations might be entertaining to consider; for instance, in summertime, ice cream sales increase, as do shark attacks, but correlation does not equate to causation1. However, apophenia is not amusing for patients when symptomatic of schizophrenia; in fact, it is one of the most deeply disturbing elements of that wretched disease. It is feasible that the addiction our society has to social media and mobile technology may have far-reaching consequences for many.
What can you do about this situation? Limit daily screen time, ensure clear delineations between work and recreation, and avoid devices with screens prior to bedtime. Take time to de-stress, exercise regularly, and spend time with people who care about you. If you feel that inappropriate fear, anxiety, or panic is creeping into your life, seek help.
Pilots abhor being grounded by illness, but being mentally grounded is a good thing; therefore, recognizing how your environment affects you could avoid having to squawk 7700 any time soon.
When Elvis sang of “Burning Love” in 1972, the lyric stated that his “brain was flaming” and it left him a “hunk of burning love.” Maybe dopamine, oxytocin, and his amygdala were at play? Rock on, Elvis, rock on.
You can send your questions and comments to Dr. Sackier via email: [email protected] and listen to his weekly podcasts at: