There are four brain chemicals, but I am going to focus on dopamine. Dopamine is the joy of finding things that meet your needs. You know that “Eureka- I got it” feeling? That’s dopamine. Dopamine motivates you to get what you need, even when it takes a lot of effort. It is not always all that rational. Your inner mammal decides what feels good and seeks rewards that feel good. This mammal brain scans constantly for potential rewards, and dopamine is the signal that it has found some. It is important to note that the expectation of rewards is what triggers dopamine.

There are examples all over the place. Video games are filled with potential dopamine releasing behaviors. They almost all have levels and challenges of some type. As the game gets harder, the release of dopamine gets more intense as you pass through a level that required many tries. But once you have done it, the dopamine release is not as strong the next time. You need a new challenge to get that dopamine activated again.

Social media is even better. They don’t usually have levels, but most of them do have a feed. And you need to scroll through the feed before you finally find something interesting. The game of finding that interesting post or image releases dopamine and makes you addicted to the platform.

So what does this have to do with education? It should have a lot to do with it. Shouldn’t education be implementing products that make you more addicted to using it? Shouldn’t education involve something that produces a feeling that you want to have again?

It seems that most of education operates with the opposite in mind. The basic process of studying through a textbook and then answering some questions is not going to release euphoria for most people. I suppose the argument would be that dopamine is released by the expectation of acing an exam. That’s probably true, but obviously it only works for a very small percentage of the population (those who are A students). Everyone else has shorter attention spans and will inevitably do something that meets their dopamine needs more immediately. For a lot of people, some of those things will surely be the examples we gave above (social media and gaming).

The challenge for education technology companies is not to produce the content. That already exists. Just making books available in digital form does not actually improve the user experience very much. What is needed is for the product to be based on releasing dopamine from the student’s brain so that they become addicted to the expectation of reward. What exactly that reward should be requires creativity in developing a good product.