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The Dopamine-Driven Art Addiction

In my 33rd year, at the age of Christ, I faced depression for the first time in my life. I had no opportunity to do art at the time. The constant repetitions of actions necessary to manage the hygiene of my own life and the life of my family became my reality. I had nothing to strive for. Thoughts of the eternal dullness of the world around me appeared in my head over and over. I began to suspect that suicide might not be the worst option for a bored person. That was when I first realized my profound dependence on thrills.

Death latex mask

As a child, I felt that I had an inclination to rapid and powerful pastimes. They came out of nowhere and captivated me completely. I hated being intellectually bored. I had a need to strive for something, preferably for something challenging to perform. Once I bought a copy-book to learn how to write with my left hand and spent several weeks in a row doing this. On one occasion, at the age of 8 years, instead of a children's rhyme, I decided to find on my own and tell Yesenin's ‘Autumn’ to my class (ever since that when I look at ashberry I always see blood ).


‘On the edge of a juniper grove
Autumn, the red mare, walks quietly
Dropping leaves from its mane on the ground.
And the clang of its hoofs is heard
In the mist of the river banks
Where no wind goes round.

But the wanderer, it raises the foliage
On the roads and rustles it,
Going on foot bit by bit.

And it kisses the wounds of the Christ
On the mountain ash tree
That are burning scarlet’.


Like to most of my kind, the decision to engage in art came along with my parents' enthusiasm. My mother brought me to the public art school N6. And pretty quickly I recognized that the ability to draw is profitable. You can study less compensating the papers and rest of the homework's poor content quality with beautiful covers. The Temple of Dullness my school was. Not enough adventure if you ask me.

Super Mario Bros by Nintendo, 1985

At that time, after the classes and sometimes instead of them, I began to play the Nintendo video game console. Adrenaline level skyrocketed with every Super Mario bounce. Mario was much cooler than slow Post-Soviet everyday reality. Even the stories about one more gang member killed by the other gang member weren't entertaining for Soviet kids anymore. The teacher with purple hair continued to call us ‘gentlemen of St. Petersburg’ at school.

Computer games stopped turning me on by the time I was 13. A much larger dose of emotional drama was needed. I concluded that it was time to make my first real bet in life. I took the risk of exchanging my well-established childhood for the unpopular but full of surprises pathway of an artist. This was my first, yet not fully conscious step into the abyss, to addiction. The exams for admission to one of the two secondary schools with an emphasis on art that existed in the city at the time brought about the excitement with the amplitude so high it exceeded all previous ones. The goal seemed impossible to achieve thus emotions went out of control. Life has become interesting. The previously colorless world around me shined and gleamed, like liquid sunshine. I successfully passed the exams, began to study and almost live in a completely different place with a new atmosphere.

The euphoria has lasted for about a year. I began to let things go. It no longer felt the same. The inner state got back to neutral. But the brain increasingly demanded the surroundings to remain emotionally intense. It was necessary to increase the dose. I had to venture out into something new and more challenging to achieve. There were 2 of the best universities of higher education in art at that time in my city. One fit for the ones socially anxious (academicians). And another serves well for the ones socially fearless (the early 20th century modernists). Addicted ones like me, of course, matched perfectly with the latter. After almost a year of late-night art practice routine, I passed the exams. Unfortunately, I figured out that in order to be accepted into the ranks of socially fearless I need to offer a fantastic bribe. The bribe was not an option, as my grandmother, a convinced communist, raised me with rigid communist morals, which extended exclusively to the middle class. I was only 15, and I decided to try again next year.  More late-night art practice routine. 6 people out of 7 in the finals who paid their bribed to get a place. I was the 7th, but I was not a lucky one. The head of the department considered that it would be a noble gesture of him to give a chance to a person from the provinces. As a ‘gentleman of St. Petersburg’ I could wait for yet another year.

In the absence of possibilities and aims, I experienced withdrawals. I felt plunging deeper into a swamp. My loneliness, despair, and melancholy were overwhelming. I needed at least a small dose of human excitement, and soon I got it.


I scored with the highest points while entering that fearless University. Thanks to that fact I enrolled in a more modest art university without taking any exams. I felt a little let go. Still, I was not excited by the prospect of spending six years there. And then suddenly I realized that the release of so-called happiness hormones was triggered by direct contact with the visual art. The gateway opened into space every time I sat down to work. I've lost my appetite and sleep. The world burst with new colors and sang novel tunes, that pierced me to the bone. As it turned out, this one was easy A. All you need was to get a new job.

So that it began, my brand-new carefree life. I've changed job after job. Replaced one goal with another. The perpetual frenzy of turmoils that have lasted for more than 17 years now.

Dopamine formula

Today I know that my eternal quest for strong new emotions is merely an inner predisposition to seek pleasure from dopamine release. Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters produced in the brain of humans and some other animals. While dopamine is released into the reward system centers of the brain, we experience joy, pleasure, and relaxation. 


The stimuli that trigger the reward system response in the brain are usually new or unexpected, those that we still know very little about. Some experimental studies point out a connection between the dopamine pathways and the creative process. By the way, dopamine receptors of creatively engaged people are very much alike to the same receptors of people suffering from schizophrenia.

Singing monkeys

The creative occupations are defined by an impressive percentage of terra incognito on ones' roadmap. People who are gravitated towards these activities display some dopamine release addiction traits (and also to a lesser extent, serotonin). This often drives them to or drag them away from various other obsessions, such as alcohol and drugs. The perfect ratio of true art dedicated junkie, if you ask me, is 70% dopamine release to 30% serotonin relief. Serotonin, by the way, is also a neurotransmitter causing intense positive emotions. They are typically interconnected with the approval obtained from others. Serotonin is very important for social animals living in hierarchical groups. An artist may become more dependent on the different sorts of social institutions. That displays his/her serotonin level increase at the moment. For a probable dopamine addict, the most essential aspect of the art industry is the fantastic promise of the opportunity to reach out for something original and otherworldly. The artist, in some ways, always recreates and processes the world's unparalleled complexity. It is impossible to achieve a perfect copy though. Your carefully arranged light looks poor and effortless in comparison to real photons interacting with the physical matter. There are almost infinite chances of striving for Perfection. And by all means, they won't be out of the dopamine stock ever. But it’s scary that someone who craves so seriously for everything unexpected and does not receive dopamine release through art or science (which I think belongs to creative professions, too), is so likely to find it through drugs. Sometimes drugs appear in a person's life long before art comes by. One can live with creativity and dope simultaneously, collecting all the different kinds of addictions. Of course, that is unlikely to go unnoticed by society. That is why the artists share the glory of the drug and alcohol junkies' setting sun.

I was lucky. Art came in my life in the early days, and my aptitudes found a peaceful way out. To be an artist is to have dopamine addiction, and to be able to process a tremendous amount of emotions in life. You walk your natural path. It may not be the easiest way, to head out of one frenzy right into the another, in the perpetual pursuit for a new one. But it is a billion times better than to hang out in the emotional void in which most of humanity is immersed.


Written by Yod. 2018

Translated by Yana Ladinskaya


Read it in Russian