Dopamine and Memory

How This Neurotransmitter Can Help You Learn


Hi there. I’m your brain. Most of the time, you probably don’t think about me, but I’m always here, working to keep you alive and functioning. The cells in me, called neurons, are constantly firing, giving signals to each other that regulate all of your systems, voluntary and involuntary, from your bones and muscles to your digestive system. I control your heartbeat, your breathing, your movements, and more. Even as you read this sentence, your neurons are firing, committing hopefully at least some of this to memory. Making memories is actually a super-complicated process, but for now I’m just going to focus on three parts: the hippocampus, dopamine, and long-term potentiation, or LTP.

The Hippocampus, Dopamine, and LTP

The hippocampus is the part of me where most memories are stored. You can remember that with the phrase “If there’s a hippo on campus, you’ll remember it forever.” The hippocampus contains both neurons that use dopamine and sites of LTP. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter most associated with feeling really great. It comes into play when an electrical impulse called an action potential fires in your brain. Action potentials can move a message along neurons, but it can’t usually cross synapses, or connections between neurons. To do so, it uses neurotransmitters like dopamine. Dopamine is usually produced in response to positive stimuli to make you happy, but also has other purposes. I make dopamine when you think something is funny, when you see or hear something new and exciting, and when you are rewarded for good work. Dopamine makes it easier for memories to be made through a process called long-term potentiation. LTP is when synapses between neurons strengthen, making it easier to access the memory. If you think about something more, LTP grows stronger; neurons that fire together wire together. Dopamine can help create memories by lowering the threshold for LTP to be inducted into the hippocampus at. That means you don’t have to think about something as much as normal for your neurons to “wire together”. So, being happy creates dopamine, which makes it easier for the hippocampus to create long-term memories.

What You Can Do

Knowing this information can be very beneficial to your ability to remember things, if you use it correctly. To summarize so far, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is created to make you feel happy. It can help your hippocampus make memories by lowering the threshold for long-term potentiation (LTP). So, if you are happy, it’ll be easier to remember things. All emotions can impact your ability to learn and retain information.

To use this to your benefit, you need to be able to meld your thoughts with emotions. Instead of separating emotions and thoughts in your head, use them with each other. As you step into a classroom, be aware of how you are feeling. If you're thinking happy thoughts, keep doing what you're doing. Don't daydream about what's making you happy, but stay in touch with that feeling and try to translate it to whatever material you're supposed to be learning that day. If you aren't feeling as good as you want to be, consider all the good things that you are currently exposed to. Whatever your mood before you entered the classroom, ignoring negative stimuli and focusing on what you like about your current situation will increase your dopamine levels. Take note of anything humorous, gratifying, aesthetically pleasing, and new, or anything else you find enjoyable. All emotions that are linked with pleasure and joy most likely are caused by a release of dopamine, so all of them will help you learn.

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What Your Teachers Can Do

The way teachers present information can also impact dopamine levels. As I said before, anything funny, new, exciting, or rewarding can make you release dopamine. Here are some things your teachers can do to make you release dopamine.

  • Make jokes in class. Humor related to the topic works best to help students retain information. Remember the phrase I told you about the hippocampus? That works because most people find the mental image of a hippo on campus to be funny, which causes a dopamine release in me that helps make LTP.
  • Use hands-on activities. One great example of this was a simulation created by Mr. Bloom. He made us draw smiley-faces in the same conditions of a factory assembly line. This allowed us to see the factory workers' situation, but also caused a release of dopamine from the novel and engaging experience.
  • Break up your normal schedule. Try playing review games, giving students small breaks, or showing new content in a different way. Dopamine is produced not only because of something enjoyable, but also in anticipation of it. Students will be more open to learning something a new way.
  • Praise students. This common tactic works in part because anything rewarding causes dopamine to be produced.