Wednesday, March 10, 2010

D&D and Dopamine

I just finished Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book on memory and the decision making process, “How We Decide”. The book is highly recommended if you want a little inner peek at how and why we make the decisions we do in our day to day lives.

One thing that Lehrer focuses on is the presence of dopamine neurons and their effect on our decision making processes. The nucleus accubens (NAcc), the part of the brain that makes you feel happy and generates pleasurable feelings, is what produces dopamine. Dopamine regulates not only the pleasure centers but all our emotions, the molecule in ourselves that literally controls us. Dopamine neurons are working all the time, constantly generating emotions, feelings and “patterns” that lead to pleasurable impulses (they can lead to negative emotions also if something not-as-expected turns up, such as expecting a desert of chocolate cake and getting lima beans instead might induce)

To make a long story short (and I heartily advise reading the book to learn more about how dopamine controls our lives), our decision making is often controlled by the pleasure we will receive when we get a dopamine “hit” to the brain after making a “good” choice. Now, I’ve known for years (ever since reading about how junkies, gamblers and sex addicts are afflicted with excess dopamine surges) that the pleasurable “high” I experience when, say, walking into a game store or opening a new D&D module is dopamine related. However, after reading this book, it amazed me how many activities related to D&D (and sometimes not even directly related) trigger the pleasure neurons and leave me with a happy feeling akin to a drug high. I made a list of D&D related activities that I am absolutely convinced cause dopamine surges in my brain and wash away any negative or bad feelings I might have at the time:

Looking at any classic “blue-white” map;

Looking at an unpainted lead miniature;

Looking at or drawing on graph or hex paper;

Rolling 3 or 4 six sided dice six times;

Flipping through a book of D&D monsters (any, but the 1E Monster Manual seems to have the best effect);

Seeing the cover of a classic pre-#100 Dragon magazine;

Opening D&D PDFs on my computer;

Seeing the names “Gygax, “Kuntz”, “Mentzer” or “Kask” almost anywhere;

Seeing, holding or rolling polyhedral dice;

Booting up the Core Rules Expansion CD on my computer;

Looking at any Trampier, Otus or Sutherland artwork;

Hearing certain albums like Led Zepplin IV, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, or The Who’s Who’s Next (all albums we were listening to intently while running our first campaign back in 1978-79 with G1-3; to this day hearing Zepplin’s Misty Mountain Hop makes me instantly remember G2 Glacier of the Frost Giant Jarl);

By extension, the word “Giant”, especially preceded by "Hill", "Frost", "Fire", "Stone" or "Cloud";

Looking at the underground hex map of the classic D "Descent" series;

Seeing the word “Greyhawk” almost anywhere;

Seeing the large first level poster map of Undermountain;

Sharpening a fistful of pencils with the same electric pencil sharpener I’ve had since high school;

Touching the smoothness of a Chessex battlemat;

Seeing any sort of “random generation” chart, whether it be for names, weapons, skills, locations, etc as long as you have to use a d12, d20 or d100;

What D&D related activities/word associations trigger dopamine surges of pleasure in your brain?


  1. Thanks for the book recommendation! I was just posting about games and addictive behaviour, so this is very timely. :)

    Would you say that these "dopamine hits" could mostly be grouped under nostalgia / happy memories?

  2. Sure, in a way mine are. Obviously many nostalgic thoughts trigger dopamine, which BTW is another reason why most people think their youth was so happy (disregarding the unpleasant spots); we tend to concentrate on only the moments which stimulate our dopamine neurons. Seeing as some people get dopamine highs from gambling, eating hamburgers, or jogging I would say that nostalgic memories aren't always the cause. However, I will say in my case I was getting these dopamine "hits" even as a youth. Interestingly which makes the idea of the gaming weekend when we stayed up mights playing D&D from Friday night until Sunday morning take on a different was like a "drug high weekend" since it was stimulating our dopamine centers! The more I thought about it, it may explain why I was completely uninterested in drugs during my teen years!

  3. YKIMK. Cheap, guilt-free highs ftw.


    * sniffing the inside covers of AD&D hardbacks
    * the clatter of a d20 across a tabletop
    * 3d6, in order

  4. "sniffing the inside covers of AD&D hardbacks"

    HAhah! I think they printed them with a particularly strong smelling ink. :D