Oh Dopamine – The Unexpected Emotions of the Middle Aged Englishman

Is there a sadder sight than a lone, foot-mangled pigeon shuffling by the Manchester Piccadilly Costa Coffee, waiting for a bored traveller to mishandle their pain au raisin and drop yellow dough onto the paving slabs? Yes there is, loads of them, but it is the sight before me now so I thought I would double check. Behind me is newsagent brimming with Now magazines, it warns us of a “Celebrity Body Crisis”. By god, what is going on, is Kim Kardashian forming rapidly growing skin polyps that are taking lumpen, humanoid form and attacking those she is furious with? No, I think it is just that some people have become fatter during pregnancy to accommodate the embryo within and the food it will need. I am surprised this still seems to take some unawares.

That poor limping pigeon, the current crop of Costa customers are not crumb clumsy. There is no faux french pastry for this bird.

In my current show, I talk about “crying porn”. This is art or culture which will make you well up. It may be Billy Bragg’s Tank Park Salute –

“A photograph on a sunny day, a little boy’s lifetime away”

Or Julianne Moore in End of the Affair or Magnolia, or it’s the first ten minutes of Pixar’s Up or the last few chapters of Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall.
I am told this is the hand of dopamine, a hormone that aids our empathy and comradeship, that theory of the mind that means we can share in the upset of others. Sometimes fiction can be more potent than reality, because real life doesn’t have an orchestral accompaniment rich in cello accompaniment. Dopamine shows no prejudice for real life over cinema in those first few moments of being moved.

In my early twenties, the two most potent films for repeatedly moving me were Edward Scissorhands and The Fisher King. As I get older, I notice I am more easily moved. The worry increases, the fears are closer than they are when you are in your teens and your worries are more acne and a first kiss than loss and death. I think of how easily John Peel was moved to tears while broadcasting, memories of mere near incidents, let alone actual happenings, would cause his voice to crack as he introduced Misty in Roots.

Parenthood ramps up the dopamine and welling up. I was backstage with Jo Brand on a moored boat a few months ago, we were talking of worry. I mentioned a story in the day’s paper about a 6 year old girl who, in the excitement of leaving a party, ran across the road to her father. She was knocked down and killed. As the words of the story came out, I found myself briefly overwhelmed. Every similar story, every brushed past headline relating such grief causes a pause of thought, a vague bruising in the stomach, the desire to make a call, just to check everything is okay.

I think of the footage of the space shuttle Challenger tragedy. There is an image that I no longer know if I saw or, if when I was told about, I imagined it so vividly that I now believe I saw it. Being a shuttle launch, the news cameras are focusing on many things, the flight, the control room, the proud family members watching their children becoming space heroes.
Then, the explosion, and the silence of a thousand thoughts and the powerlessness to do anymore than stare and fight against your senses.
“This did not happen.”
The rational mind has gone away so brief madness can comfort and say, ‘that didn’t happen, there is some explanation, a waking dream, now let’s watch the shuttle continue its ascent. All is well’.
But the nausea of shock is persistent with the truth.

The cameras stay fixed, not to mine the horror, they are lost too.
A father looks on, I think it was Christa McAuliff’s dad, and he is still smiling. His face is locked. As long as he is smiling, then it isn’t real. It is heartbreaking.

I was going to write something about the human ability to imagine others emotions and share and all that, but you can work out your own ending. The hardest thing is to be moved, and then keep the memory of that for long enough to do something purposeful. We hear Jeremy Irons tell us of dirty water and dead children, but the next advert for walk in baths, reclining chairs, or toffees, can wipe it all away.

Suffice to say, the damaged bird is still hopping, the crumbs are still negligible, and I don’t really care. My theory of mind doesn’t stretch to a pigeon.

Footnote.
When I was little, there was an advert for a new vacuum cleaner that made sure not the slightest crumb was left in any corner. The melancholy spokesperson for this product was a hungry cartoon mouse. This worried me so much that I would sneak bits of cheese and digestive under a kitchen rug. i don’t know why I bothered, we didn’t have a very good vacuum cleaner anyway.

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4 Responses to Oh Dopamine – The Unexpected Emotions of the Middle Aged Englishman

  1. andyflemming says:

    That was a beautiful read Robin.

  2. Pigeons with bumblefoot break my heart every time. As Kindle just changed that to Dumbledore, I’ll stop while I’m winning and not get on to dopamine overload.

  3. Rob Fitzgerald says:

    This pretty much articulates my experience now as a middle aged father of two young children. Wonderfully put.

  4. lanceleuven says:

    Very well written. The Challengar bit was particularly well painted. So true.

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