Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What is up with the "Dopamine Project"?

Someone is trying to make me eat my words.

yum. (source)
That someone is the Dopamine Project. I am on record as saying "It is better for the public to learn simplified bite-size science morsels than to learn nothing at all." And my specific example was that it's better for people to know that 'dopamine is a reward molecule' than to not even know the term dopamine.

But sometimes things just go too far. The "Dopamine Project" is a website run by Charles Lyell with a stated 'self-help' purpose:
"The Dopamine Project was founded to foster positive change by encouraging open-minded individuals to share readily available research into the connections between dopamine and a growing list of addictive behaviors." -About Tab
Doesn't sound too terrible, right? Share research about dopamine? sign me up! .... However, I don't see ANY research, or even references to research, on this website. In fact it's quite wootastic. Going through the posts, you get some gems like

"A Message from you Dopamine Angel"


"Keeping a Dopamine Diary: Wrestling with Dopamine-Induced Ignorance"

It's all about how 'good dopamine' makes you want things you should want (food) and 'bad dopamine' makes you want things that will hurt you later (addictive drugs for example). Basically the website's message is a self-help, self-control one with the word dopamine sprinkled all over it.

The worst part is that not only does the website not include a single citation to a research paper, it actively rails against science.

"The future depends on how long it takes scientists to discover what they haven’t been interested in discovering so far. Rather than wait for the mainstream scientists and media to get started, we’re reaching out to anyone interested in fostering positive change by raising dopamine awareness." -Welcome to the Dopamine Project
Trust me, scientists want to understand dopamine. At the IBAGS conference half the talks related to dopamine, and there is a conference completely devoted to dopamine coming up in May. The specific action of dopamine is really really complex, and scientists are working really really hard to unravel its intricacies. This Charles Lyell guy is pulling out a typical woo card, implying that he knows what scientists don't want you to know.
"If the thought of fostering positive change through dopamine awareness triggers a shot of dopamine that brings a smile to your face, this might be your chance to be among the top .001% who go on record as the first to understand and apply what we know about dopamine to make a difference."  -Welcome to the Dopamine Project
 He also seems to feel personally attacked by Steven Poole's New Statesman article on Neurobollocks.

Is the 'Dopamine Project' ridiculous and unscientific? Absolutely.

Is it harmful and dangerous to people? ... Honestly, I'm not sure. Reading it certainly makes me want to throw up, but there are worse things for pseudoscience to encourage than self-control. I'm not sure if I should devour my earlier words quite yet.

© TheCellularScale

To read more on the confusing line between science and pseudoscience, see Michael Shermer's Scientific American article:

Shermer M (2011). What is pseudoscience? Scientific American, 305 (3) PMID: 21870452


  1. Charles Lyell’s response:


  2. Hey, you’re not playing fair.

    Why won’t you link to my response to your post?


    1. Nice work reposting. I think some citations would be useful on your site, but anyone who is familiar with the research won't find much to argue with on your site.

      I think that the primary problem, that addiction itself stems from, is a lack of the ability to self-regulate, which generally stems from a lack of parental attunement early in life which yields an insecure attachment style. In an attempt to calm the amygdala / midbrain, addicts self sooth in the short term by spiking dopamine vs. learning to decrease the release of cortisol & adrenaline.

  3. Dopamine awareness is dangerous. I don't see how it helps anyone especially people with depression. Dopamine awareness in short undermines everything you do or that lifts your mood. Now how the hell is that helpful to anybody other than destroying their lives???