If you want to feel rewarded, punch a stranger in the face

Maybe don’t, actually, because that’s not okay. It is an action with a probable outcome scenario in which you exist in pain, incarcerated, shamed, or all of the above.

If you want to feel rewarded, though, a hit of dopamine (sorry) will certainly help. You may know it as “the pleasure chemical”, because that’s precisely one of its many traits – it is indeed heavily involved in the phenomenon we know as addiction.

Dopamine is simply one of the many organic chemicals which is synthesized in most animals and plants (in the brain and kidneys for humans), functioning as a “neurotransmitter” – it sends signals between different nerve cells. By controlling the brain’s reward and pleasure centres, it can be seen as a ‘positive reinforcer’ of pleasurable behaviours.

To this dope amine (sorry) we owe our passionate longing for the big three: food, sex and drugs. They feel good for a reason! But you may not know that researchers may have discovered a fourth horseman in the saga of dopamine cravings, nearly a decade ago…

Violence! Aggression! Knuckle sandwiches!

Mixed martial artist scores a kick to the ribs. That’s going to hurt tomorrow… Source: Wikimedia commons

We love a good footy punch-on. Age-old martial arts like wrestling and boxing continue in fashion today, having been documented as far back as 8th century BCE Greece. MMA, or mixed martial arts, is quickly gaining huge amounts of popularity.

As times changed, the good old gladiator events lost appeal somewhere down the line, however popular they were. Now, we have the internet if we want to watch a cheeky little road rage get physical (caught on dashcam, of course).

What is acceptable for public viewing has shifted with culture over the centuries, but aside from that, the core fundamentals of it all remain unchanged. Humans have always been drawn to fights, fascinated by brutality in sports.

In our hyper-social and highly complex behaviours, violence and aggression is an innate and natural part of being human. But why?

Sure, some people may appear to enjoy it more than others, and most are able to control themselves in heated situations. I certainly wish to keep my jaw and limbs intact.

But if a fistfight were to break out in the open street, many would stop in their paths to watch the spectacle. Would you?

We cannot pinpoint why the crave exists. It is hard to find a causal link between the chemicals in our body and the beasts in our heads. But dopamine may play a key role.

Food, sex, and a black eye for fun

Due to overall structure, connectivity and genetics, the mouse brain is thought to be analogous to the human brain. A lot of what we’ve learnt about our own brains comes from rodents and other animals.

When placed with a male ‘intruder’ mouse, a trained ‘resident’ male mouse would behave aggressively towards it. Violent actions included boxing, biting and tail-rattling. After the intruder was removed, the resident mouse had the option to nose-poke a target which would return an intruder mouse.

After consistent poking of said target and ensuing fights, the researchers learned that the mice would “intentionally seek out an aggressive encounter

What’s more, when treated with a drug that blocks dopamine in parts of the brain involved in rewards like food and sex, resident mice were less likely to instigate aggression on an intruding mouse. This showed that dopamine played a key role in driving aggression and violence as a reward in instigating individuals.

Tapping into that primal urge

If you’re all out of luck in the pantry, or in the bed, or if your local dealer is on holiday, you may be asking “how am I going to get my dopamine fix today?!” For those of you curious at heart, unfortunately, I’m not an advocate for picking fights on the streets as a means of rewarding oneself.

But there are plenty of other options out there.

Try out taekwondo! Buy some boxing gloves and spar with a mate! On top of the countless health benefits that martial arts and physical sports provide, you will end every session in a state of euphoria and with a sense of accomplishment.

You’ll find that, given a pathway to release built-up aggression and frustration in our stressful day-to-day lives, punching and kicking a bag every week leaves the mind calmer and more relaxed outside of the ring.

Give it a go. See what you like. If it’s not for you, hey, you tapped into that primal urge. You’ll see why we love the thrill of the violence, and for that you can thank dopamine.


One Response to “If you want to feel rewarded, punch a stranger in the face”

  1. Nicholas Fawcett says:

    Great article Andrew!
    I was confused at the beginning of your post as to how the attention-grabbing headline was related to your writing, but as the piece went on I got much clearer picture and an insight into what makes our brains tick! Well done!