Having sex, snorting cocaine, and listening to your favorite music all make you feel good to varying degrees—and that's because each of them, to some extent, gets you high. Pleasurable activities all activate a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which plays a central role in the reward circuit, triggering the release of feel-good hormones like dopamine.
This chemical rush can accompany everything from laughing as you watch Dave Chappelle's Netflix special to finding twenty bucks in an old pair of jeans. (You can also experience this mini-high from giving cash away.) "It's the same mechanism at play when you take a psychoactive drug, but when it's a natural high, it happens in a much more nuanced way," says Gül Dölen, a researcher who studies the way brain circuits mediate reward behaviors at Johns Hopkins University's Department of Neuroscience.
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In recent years, researchers like Dölen have found that natural and chemical highs share more in common than previously thought. In 2015, for instance, German researchers found that the famed "runner's high" is caused not only by endorphins, as previously thought, but also by an endocannabinoid called anandamide; it's basically your body's version of the cannabinoid molecules in marijuana. Several studies have also shown that your brain reacts similarly to sugar as it does to cocaine.
Even the brains of men affected by compulsive sexual behavior lit up in the nucleus accumbens, dorsal anterior cingulate, and amygdala when they looked at erotic videos—the same three parts of the brain stimulated when addicts are presented with drug stimuli. And just as drug-induced highs can lead to a crash, feelings of prolonged natural euphoria can also leave you prone to falling into an emotional rut.
In 2015 researchers at Northwestern University, for instance, scanned the brains of people who were still in love with their exes—while they looked at photos of their exes. (Yeah, oof.) The resulting functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans showed heightened activity in the same brain regions associated with drug addiction and craving.
But as anyone who has both smoked a bowl and gone for a run—um, not necessarily at the same time—knows, these 'highs' don't work in exactly the same way. Let's say you've been craving a slice of chocolate cake. Finally, after a long day, you dig into that rich, fudge-packed frosting. Your brain goes nuts over that reward and releases dopamine, which binds to specialized receptors before proteins remove it from the synapse, recycling it for future release. That brings your brain back into balance, Dölen says.
But now—theoretically—swap that chocolate cake for a line of cocaine: Instead of binding to the receptors and getting recycled like dopamine normally would, cocaine binds to the transporter, blocking the removal of dopamine and allowing it to accumulate, causing the intense high. "The circuitry that encodes the natural high shows the normal way the brain works," Dölen says. "Drugs co-opt that system and override those natural balances."
That's why you can be in a terrible mood, take a hit of a drug, and perform an emotional one-eighty. This caveat makes the high from a pill, powder, or plant much more convenient and controlled than the natural one. "Natural highs are in the same ballpark of intensity as many chemical highs, but they're much more sensitive to conditions," Dölen explains. "It's going to matter whether you're hungry for social interaction or if you need some alone time. It's [also] going to matter whether you just ate Thanksgiving dinner or you've been salivating over the smells for hours and hours."
That's also one reason why it's hard to say with any degree of certainty which 'natural' high is the "biggest." We all react to these experiences differently—and furthermore, while the technology to study the release of dopamine works great on rats, human beings are very literally a much different animal. "The data is difficult to come by because human brain images give us a view from 100,000 feet," Dölen says. "Each pixel represents tens of thousands of neurons, whereas on animals in the lab we're able to see what a single molecule of dopamine is doing to a single receptor that sees it. The scale is dramatically different."
When scientists study animal brains in the lab, they use more invasive techniques to understand the inner-workings of the mind. Electrodes, implanted either into the live animal's gray matter or a slice of brain kept alive artificially, can record electrical activity of the neurons themselves. Miniature laser microscopes implanted directly over the brain regions of interest give more detailed temporal and spatial resolution—which is muted in human brain scans because fMRIs only measure the net changes of cell activity in the blood.
What we do know is that, whether it's sex, running, or chocolate cake, the natural highs you feel every day are more sustainable over the long run—several studies have shown dampened activity in reward pathways in drug addicts' brains compared to non-addicted brains. And while the science may not exist yet to support it, there's at least anecdotal evidence to suggest we rate those highs more favorably.
"I've sat down with people who have been drug addicts for decades and asked them, 'What's the best you've ever felt in your life?' assuming I'd hear about the first time they tried heroin," says Matt Bellace, who holds a PhD in clinical psychology and whose work now focuses on drug-free advocacy. "But what they tell me about are real life experiences."
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