The Dopamine Made Me Do It

bike-snow-winter

People my age tend to avoid risky situations, so why is my brain so good at convincing me to put it all on the line?

The traditional January thaw here in the North Country had me back on my bicycle last week, despite patches of glare ice and glacial snow on the streets. It’s a calculated risk I take every year, figuring that I’m more likely to take a tumble while striding on a slick sidewalk than rolling over treacherous terrain on my two-wheeler. In place of a helmet, I travel with a simple mantra: No sudden turns.

It’s a strategy that has kept me vertical for a few consecutive winters. As long as the mercury floats above zero, I’ve found cycling to be a perfectly reasonable way to get around town. Yes, the streets narrow and the opportunities for sliding beneath the wheels of an oncoming vehicle arise more frequently than in other cycling seasons, but on the plus side, I never have to worry about having the exact change for bus fare.

My Lovely Wife is a bit more risk-averse than I am generally, and specifically as it pertains to winter biking. She’s taken a few tumbles during the summer riding season in recent years, and she understands how long it takes the aging body to recover. If recent research is any indication, MLW may also want to thank lower levels of dopamine in her brain for her higher levels of common sense.

Released during pleasurable activities, dopamine offers an immediate reward for doing fun stuff and then tells your brain to go look for more. It’s sort of the neurological equivalent of hanging out with the wrong crowd in high school. It can lead to risky behavior.

By the time you reach retirement age, though, your dopamine tank should be pretty close to empty. Your brain should be telling you, Been there, done that, Grampa. Time for your nap. As a result, geezers tend to take fewer risks than younger folks.

A 2016 study out of University College London, for example, concluded that the lower the dopamine levels in participants, the fewer risky choices they made. “Older people were simply less attracted to big rewards and this made them less willing to take risks to try to get them,” lead study author Robb Rutledge, PhD, told Forbes.

I’m not quite sure what reward I was chasing last Friday afternoon when I set out on my bike to meet MLW at our favorite coffee shop (she arrived, more prudently, by bus). The sun was out and the streets were moderately passable. Traffic was light, as well, which made for a pleasant, if cautious, excursion. That sort of experience is certainly part of the appeal, but it doesn’t completely cover it. I have to admit there’s a certain satisfaction in rolling up to an empty bike rack anchored in a half-foot of packed snow, knowing that I might be one of the few guys crazy enough (and probably the only one on Medicare) to be out pedaling on these streets. It’s not like I’m channeling Admiral Peary at the North Pole or anything, but the ego does tend to inflate.

And a guy’s confidence level — perhaps boosted by a shot of dopamine — tends to rise in such a way to encourage less cautious behavior. Heading home in the early evening gloom, I quickened my pace. I could still spot the scattered patches of ice and snow, but traffic was heavier than before, forcing me to pull over to let the cars pass. And while reentering the traffic lane after one such maneuver, I turned too sharply, the bike slid out from under me, and gravity did what it does.

Today I’m nursing an annoying slice of road rash on my knee, a multicolored sprained thumb, and a new respect for my brain’s ability to convince me to do stupid things. Meanwhile, my two-wheeler is locked securely in the garage and it looks like sleet and snow tomorrow, so I know better than to invite calamity on my morning commute. Still, part of me can’t help wondering, What would Admiral Peary do?

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