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The Girlfriend's Guide to Health will be updated every Tuesday.... Stay tuned dear readers and let me rock your world.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Lowered Expectations

I am coming to the realization dear girlfriends that I have relatively high expectations. Cancel the relative, actually. My expectations are just quite high.

Remember when you were little and there were those adds in the comic books for "100 baby dolls" or "lifelike sea monkeys". There they were posted on the back of a comic book advertising a mail away for 100 miniature dolls and all you had to do was mail in one dollar and they would send them to you. Alternatively, no doubt geared towards young male readers, they had "1000 sea monkeys for one dollar- just add water". You could again mail in a dollar bill and a package of "grow it yourself" sea monkeys would appear on your doorstep 4-6 weeks later.

I know what you are thinking. This HAD to be a hoax. There was no way you could get 100 miniature dolls for a dollar (plus shipping and handling).

But I was young. I was naive and I was after all BORN to shop. And the six year old version of me filled out the necessary paperwork on the back of the comic book and sent it off with crisp dollar bill (Yes girlfriends- we had dollar bills "back in the day" for those of you who were Born in the age of Brittany)

I would wait five weeks for my one dollar dolls to arrive. Clearly I was not in a financial position to chose express shipping if I was spending a week's allowance on a box of dolls. Besides.... I had my eyes on the prize. These dolls were going to be amazing. In my mind's eye I could see myself dressing these dolls and taking them to lunch. I could see tea parties the likes of which any eight year old would kill for. These were the 1970's dear girlfriends... this was going to be BIG.

There I was on a perfect August day. I remember it was August because it was summer, I was home from school and I was covered in mosquito bites. I sat at the kitchen table in my childhood home with a pair of scissor and a dream. The box should have been my first clue. The box was the size of a small shoe box.

While one side of my brain contemplated how 100 fabulous individually dressed dolls would fit in the small shoe box, the other side of my brain still had hope. Perhaps this was just the first of many boxes to come? Maybe each this was just a doll preview and the other dolls would follow.... one a week for the next two years??

And then I opened the box. Inside were 100 miniature plastic dolls the size of those miniature plastic green army men that are less than 1/2 inch high. I wanted a kick ass tea party and instead I got a large scale choking hazard. For the first time I remembered what disappointment felt like.

Professor Wolfram Schultz at Cambridge University in England is the leading authority on the study of human expectations. Studies show that the neurotransmitter Dopamine is released from brain cells in the nuleus accumbens deep in the brain in times when we anticipate rewards.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of desire. The levels of dopamine in the brain rise when we want something. Walking into Barneys or Bergdorf's or Neiman's puts my Dopamine levels back into the space program.

In fact studies show that when a cue from the environment indicates you're going to get a reward, dopamine releases in response. Unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones.

Last week I walked into Holt Renfrew and found to my surprise the fall lines had begun to arrive. CUE THE DOPAMINE.

And so on that August summer day, back in 1977, I sat there at my kitchen table with my shoe box full of dolls with my dopamine levels were on high alert.

Newsflash on Dopamine, however. If you're expecting a reward and you don't get it, dopamine levels fall steeply. This feeling is not a pleasant one, it feels a lot like pain.

Dopamine also increases how fast out brain works. Increase Dopamine in the brain and you are bouncing off the walls.... drop those same levels and you are Robert DeNiro in an Academy Award nominated performance.

The dopamine cells in the nucleus accumbens connect to many parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, where the right levels of dopamine are critical for focusing. You need good levels of dopamine to "hold" an idea in your prefrontal cortex. Positive expectations increase the levels of dopamine in the brain, and these increased levels make you more able to focus. This makes sense intuitively: teachers know that kids learn best when they are interested in a subject. Interest, desire, and positive expectations are slight variations on a similar experience, an experience of having an increased level of dopamine in the brain.

This link between Dopamine and learning may explain why happiness plays such a role in learning. Studies show we tend to absorb more information in times when we are happier and more satisfied.

So there I was with my box of plastic disappointments and my dopamine levels were in the toilet. I can remember FEELING let down by this whole experience.

It turns out, I was chemically wired for the let down.

Thank you science for yet again explaining to me the intricacies of the world we live in.

The next time I head to a sample sale I will be sure to check my Dopamine levels at the door. If all else fails, I'll be sure to plan ahead. WE can not have another repeat of the toy doll incident.

Make no mistake, life will let us down. Those round toed pumps that you thought would be perfect for years to come are only good for a season. You do not look good in a skirt THAT short after a certain age and orange is a colour that only a chosen few can wear.

Fear not my girlfriends. We all have ups and downs... and so does our brain chemistry. The best we can hope for in life and in Dopamine is a safe place to fall.

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