Fear and Loathing in Dopamine Land

written for, published by, whynow.

Dopamine Land is an immersive experience in West London, promising visitors a world of “totally irresistible happiness”. It couldn’t be… could it?

It was somewhere around South Kensington, sitting on the edge of a ball pit, when the dopamine began to take hold. I remember emptying my pockets and lowering myself in and suddenly I was overwhelmed by joy. Generic house music started coursing through my veins as my every sinew exploded with bliss. I submerged myself further into a shallow, sticky sea of plastic balls and admired the three couples in there with me. They kissed and cuddled and, in the case of one pair, dry humped. This must be what heroin feels like, I thought. Sceptical as I had been about the forced, saccharine brand of happiness, here it was, euphoria, better than any orgasm you could possibly imagine.

It was almost four o’clock and I still had another three immersive rooms ahead of me. They would be tough rooms. Very soon, I knew, dopamine would take control over my bodily functions, rendering me incapable of anything other than smiling maniacally. But there was no going back, and no time to rest. Frothing above me, like a cauldron of rabid bats descending from the sky, were a dozen or so more dopamine hunters, hungry for their turn in the pit of ecstacy. I clambered out, trying to maintain composure. I was, after all, a professional journalist, so I had an obligation to cover the story of Dopamine Land, for good or ill, in its entirety.

Dopamine gets a bad rep these days. It’s inextricably linked to superficial, internet validation and psychologists warn of the dangers of dopamine hits whenever our phones buzz. The way I see it, dopamine is dopamine and there’s nothing remotely unhealthy in basing my sense of self-worth on sporadic digital likes from pretty girls I once liked but no longer know. I live for that shit, or rather I lived for it, until I found a place where hollow happiness rings true ad infinitum.

I admired the confidence of Dopamine Land before I arrived. Where Lego and Disney offer the possibility of happiness in their lands, these dopamine junkies promise it. It’s in the name, for one, and they guarantee it again upon arrival, a big sign reading “totally irresistible happiness” leads down the first of countless dark hallways lit only by soft, rainbow coloured lights.

At the end of the hallway, you are met by a room that smells like candy floss and a man with an air of Simon Pegg about him – if none of Simon Pegg’s movies ever got made. He was very friendly and moderately amusing, though the surprise in encountering a lone visitor in myself was apparent on his face, and his continued attempts to make me laugh by pretending his selfie stick was a lightsaber were a touch infantilising. In his defence, everyone else around me had friends. 

My fellow guests could be conveniently reduced to three cohorts: 19 year old couples from mainland Europe; worn-out mums with over-glucosed children after school; or, most notably, oompa-loompas with protruding eyelashes, lip fillers and the smell of bottomless, stale mimosas on their breath having stumbled out of some Kensington brasserie half an hour prior. 

I could not help but wonder what these people were all doing here. An adult ticket to Dopamine Land comes to £20 – a small price to pay for eternal happiness, admittedly, but also a considerable sum for an unknown quantity. The storefront, meanwhile, is not all that appealing, its neon lights jarring compared to more manicured shops sitting on the Old Brompton Road. And yet here were all these folk smiling away at half 3 on a Wednesday afternoon. 

The synthetic candy floss smell was making me feel a bit ill so I decided to have a potter around while our mismatched group awaited instruction. I discovered a few things, the first being that Dopamine Land is a world where the only permissible form of communication is through handwritten neon signs, making activities like going to the cloakroom a quirky, Instagrammable event. The second was that the primary reason people visited Dopamine Land was precisely for these Instagrammable events. My final realisation was that my fellow happiness seekers seemed less bemused by my presence than I was theirs, and I took the apathy towards me as a sign to tone down the sarkiness and try to give Dopamine Land a chance.

You begin the immersive experience in a dark room with 15 or so stools positioned around a pulsating light. A gentle, female voice comes over the speakers and beguiles you with four minutes of dopamine pseudoscience. I vaguely recall something about the three coloured tunnels of dopamine. One was blue, one was red – I think – leaving, I presume, a green tunnel (though I’d be surprised if they didn’t choose to make one a pastel pink). This voice then instructs you to close your eyes and drift away, among other things, softening you up for the multisensory journey on which you are about to embark. 

From the dark room, you climb up to popcorn world. You can smell it before you see it, and eventually arrive in a red and white striped room with videos of popcorn projected on the walls. Here you can “taste fresh popcorn and evoke that childhood, cinematic excitement.” I took a bag of popcorn from the middle of the room and sat down on the floor for two minutes, unsuccessfully attempting conversation with the Swiss bloke next to me. Once our time was up, the door opened and we left. The popcorn was stale and sweet and I binned it ahead of our next ‘experience’.

Titled ‘Infinite Karma’, it consisted of a room with mirrored walls where neon lights falling gently from the mirrored ceiling to the mirrored floor. According to Dopamine Land’s website, the idea is to “Enter and be submerged in a boundless atmosphere of infinitely changing sequence of lights. Once you step into this limitless space, you are the centre stage and become wrapped up in endless reflections of colours, lights and joy.” It was pretty, I’ll confess, but the room is small and the atmosphere anything but boundless. The mirrors are dirty and the floor scratched, meaning you are always acutely aware of how finite the space is and within the 90 seconds or so you are inside the room, the supposedly infinite sequence of lights circles back to the beginning. 

A series of equally disappointing rooms follow. In ‘The Ground Is Your Enemy’, the idea is to hop from platform to platform, pretending the floor is lava, but the room is dark and the game barely works, its flaws exacerbated by the amount of people in the room at the same time. From there, you walk down more dark hallways before entering a small space with screens on two of the walls. A colourful, ASMR-ish video plays, but it’s reminiscent of interactive stock wallpapers and just makes you wish you were alone, on a hallucinogen, anywhere else in the world but here. 

There’s an arts and crafts space, equipped with dried out marker pens in every possible colour. I imagine the sheets of paper are to draw rainbows or scribble messages of adoration, but everyone just stood around slightly. On the wall, one of those handwritten neon signs radiates ‘Live, Laugh, Lust’ – Dopamine Land successfully making a famously unbearable message even worse. In the room opposite are two projectors and a guide sheet of how to form shadow animals. Try as I might, I was unable to configure my fingers in a way that resembled a moose. Next door was the ball pit, basking in a milky moonlight from a white disco light above. 

I took off my shoes and climbed onto the edge. Me and the Swiss bloke were now on speaking terms and he jumped in and threw a ball at me, laughing. I laughed and threw the ball back, before emptying my pockets and lowering myself in. I was not entirely dishonest when I said that it was here, submerged in the most pathetic part of the experience, that the dopamine did begin to take hold. Everything about it was so utterly sorry that I had to smile. When the couple next to me started dry humping, my smile turned to laughter and I made way for the next pair of horny Europeans. 

The next two rooms were the most peaceful, if equally contrived. In the first, the only sound was of distant birdsong and a child’s tears. It did not stop me from curling up on a bean bag surrounded by electric candles, until I moved onto the penultimate room: ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’. It’s described as a “digital forest that imitates a natural space”, with little bits of wood under foot and more birdsong. 

After that, all that’s left is a pillow fight. Pillow fighting people you don’t know is a strange scenario to find yourself in. All sorts of tricky questions arise. How hard do you hit? Who do you hit? How long does it last? Are headshots allowed? One pillow or two? Out of an abundance of caution, I erred on the gentle side. That was until the girlfriend of the Swiss bloke absolutely clocked me over the side of the head, much to the amusement of everyone else in the room. I ate the shot like a champ, laughing off the humiliation, but that was the end of that and my time in Dopamine Land was effectively over.

A lot of Dopamine Land seems to be about evoking your inner child; throughout, you are encouraged to discard the austerity of adulthood and frolic from room to room with glee. That’s why there’s popcorn, drawing, lava floors, a ball pit and a pillow fight. The whole thing is an opportunity to return to an idealised, over-sweetened idea of being eight-years-old.

Proponents of Dopamine Land would argue that shedding stress and reconnecting to your inner child is healthy. I fear, however, that it in fact capitalises on the fundamental modern misconception of what ‘dopamine’ is. Dopamine is not happiness. It’s not the “pleasure chemical”. More complicated, it’s integral to how we think, focus, form interests and opinions. Dopamine shapes motivation, regulates pain, affects our heart rate, our blood vessel function, our mood and our sleep. 

“Dopamine evolved to promote survival, not to make you feel good,” wrote Loretta Breuning, an American professor who authored Habits of a Happy Brain and The Science of Positivity, for Psychology Today. “It rewards you with a good feeling when you find a way to meet your needs… You are always scanning for evidence of rewards and responding with dopamine. The good feeling stops when you get what you seek because it has already done its job.”

Reducing dopamine to pleasure makes sense from a business perspective, but I would posit few places in Britain generate less genuine dopamine than Dopamine Land itself. For dopamine cannot be contrived, and the concepts of fulfilment and graft are alien to Dopamine Land. It is colourful gratification, a series of rooms designed for what ‘fun’ is meant to look like at its most juvenile, inoffensive, simple-minded form. 

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