Dopamine Flashback

Yesterday I remembered why I am a gym rat. While training quads with DYT, I was focused and determined; sweat dripped from my curly long hair, muscle spasms engulfed my legs, dizziness filled my head and chest. Fuck yeah, it was like old days and god how I missed them. My 3-hours-each-day precompetition training is often easier than before because I now need to get smaller, targeting my shoulder caps with volume instead of weight, and replacing muscle growth with fat loss. Rather than grunt my way to failure, I regularly do half-way chin ups that engage lats while mostly avoiding my hulking traps. Even my cardio is low-key; I maintain a stable heart rate between 123 and 128 beats per minute for an hour or more every day. Although usually a practical person who lives solidly in the present and plans carefully for the future, I began to dream of experiences involving dopamine waves that I had had only a few months earlier. Last night I also dreamed about eating brownies that were hot from the oven and temptingly left on the stairs; I woke up very hungry at 3 am. But enough of that. Imagine a musical interlude as I transition back in time ……. 

I am at the gym, lying flat on my back on a narrow bench, doing cross-chest extensions to work my brachialis. Breathing in with my right arm raised above me, I bend it at the elbow to lower a 15-pound dumbbell to my left shoulder, then exhale as I raise it. My left hand lightly encircles my immobile upper right arm, ensuring that the targeted part of the triceps is engaged. While performing this self-reflexive gesture again and again, I listen to myself breathing in time with the music that enters my earbuds: Paul Oakenfold’s ‘Everything in Its Right Place.’ The repetitive Radiohead remix pounds to a climax as I look up at my isolated gloved hand, which is backlit by fluorescents as it grips the weight. I feel an intense yet measured sense of pleasure. Yes, everything is in exactly the right place.

I have had this experience before. It is not an endorphin rush, and seems to occur when physical activity unites with music, often while I am walking. In December, for example, I was meeting some friends at the Wellcome Library café in London England—shout out to them!—marching along Kings Cross Road and then Euston at a hurried pace. Thanks to DYT, Janet Jackson’s ‘All for You’ was playing on my ipod:

All my girls at the party
Look at that body
Shakin’ that thing
Like I never did see
Got a nice package all right
Guess I’m gonna have to ride it tonight.

I was euphoric, and now that song is forever linked with positive memories in my mind. I had already found this song amusing, enjoying its saucy attitude. My translation: ‘Your sugar lumps are looking pretty good so, sigh, looks like I’m going to have to fuck you later.’ It’s as if the buxom Janet has an obligation to ‘ride it’ rather than an energetic desire to do so. Anyway, when I described my gym bliss-out to my partner—we were driving on a snowy Canadian highway—he told me about a CBC radio report linking music with increased levels of dopamine, a monoamine neurotransmitter formed in the brain that is key to the healthy functioning of the central nervous system, impacting emotion, perception, and movement. In contrast, endorphins are ‘the morphine within,’ associated with blocking pain or elicited by intense exercise (see my previous post ‘Endorphin Addict’). When scientists studied the brain activity in subjects as they listenened to music, they found that dopamine production increased during musical crescendos, as well as with increased exercise. I had been getting a double whammy.

Another study found that the brains of obese people had consistently fewer dopamine receptors. Though the researchers were cautious, arguing that multiple physical and social factors contributed to overeating, they suggested that food consumption might be a method used by the dopamine-deprived population to boost its pleasure principal. In other words, fat people might want to eat less if treated with dopamine therapy, instead of bosu squats. I would sign up for an experimental dopamine binge. Oh wait, I already have. 

I sometimes get the dopamine buzz when I am not moving at all, though music is usually involved. While travelling to another city for an art opening, I had the same warm and happy sensation while sitting in the car. I love long drives with my partner, firstly because I get him all to myself, and secondly because I simply love to travel. Any trip is a good one in my books, even when we go somewhere relatively boring. Sometimes my man and I chat in the car but often we say nothing; sometimes we drink coffee together or else I nod off with my head thrown back and mouth open. He always laughs at me then. 


I found the scenery compelling during this January drive, and I’m sure you can see why. Isolated fences shaped the blank nothingness, revealing our efforts to make meaning, to insist on human presence, however puny and pathetic. I clearly do not suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) in this usually sunny northern climate, but my partner remarked that he would happily participate in human hibernation, sleeping soundly from January 1 until March 31 while wrapped in the comfy afghan so thoughtfully knit by my sister. He golfs.


I cannot resist showing you another photo taken from the car as we drove into the Canadian mythology. I was ‘mindful,’ living in the present, experiencing where I was, and wondering how those crazy settlers ever thought it was a good idea to stay here. Maybe they were just too tired to keep going; the pioneering spirit actually involved resignation more than fortitude. This minimalist landscape is so pleasing to me, recalling Malevich’s White Square, all textured and strong. I like that painting even better than Voice of Fire, adopted by the National Gallery of Canada amidst some moronic controversy. And so, in keeping with the nostalgic and then surprisingly nationalistic theme of this post, it is only fitting that I end with my signature Canadian phrase, directed at both those who do not respect art and those who are not entranced by the melodious allure of dopamine: ‘You will taste the salt from my boot.’ Oh yes you will.

The lower PET scan images, labeled FDG, show glucose metabolism in the brains of obese and control (comparison) subjects. There are no differences. The upper PET scans show where the radiotracer C-11 raclopride binds to dopamine receptors. These images show that obese subjects have fewer dopamine receptors than control subjects (Brookhaven National Laboratory, 08 Feb 2001, Gene-Jack Wang and Nora Volkow). 


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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 51-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. About eight years ago, I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

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