IN the current climate of war and pandemic, who could resist an invitation to boost their levels of dopamine – the organic chemical that gives us a natural high?

Yes, Madrid is now home to happiness on tap, no longer solely along the lines of an ice-cold beer on a sunny sidewalk café, but in the shape of Dopamineland where, for €12, you can pump up your mood.

Perhaps, I mused, a visit to Dopamineland might even end up being prescribed by doctors instead of all those benzodiazepines and anxiolytics that are apparently keeping a quarter of Spaniards, not to mention the Brits and Portuguese, from going off the rails.

With a more scientific ring to it than Pleasure Dome, I was all set to be catapulted into Nirvana with an injection of cutting-edge multisensory stimulation.

Never mind that Dopamineland is located in Madrid’s financial district, in a shopping mall that would drain the dopamine from a bonobo, my daughter and I arrived with our optimism intact, thanks to the extravagant promises made on the Dopamineland website and the feverish pinks and purples signposting the gateway to bliss.

Entrance

As a tall pink wall lined with jars of sweets opened up, a small crowd of us piled eagerly into a darkened room with small illuminated podiums scattered across the floor, only to be struck by laser lights coming at us from all directions in a scenario worthy of Star Wars. This, I gathered, was the room dubbed “the floor is your enemy”, which it certainly proved to be as I stumbled out the other side.

Next stop, the Bubble Room. With walls covered in clusters of balloons, we were in a bubble of, well, balloons. Casting my eye around, I spotted a young male member of staff lurking inside the curtain and, as we streamed in, he lobbed a couple of balloons our way. No one paid him much attention, blending as he did with the backdrop, his demeanour somewhat gloomy. I returned the gesture, but to no avail. Clearly, Dopamineland had failed to work its magic on him.

Bubble Room
Bubble Room at Dopamineland. All photos by Heather Galloway

We tossed a few balloons about ourselves, then pressed on to our next port of call, which was a space lined with pillows and a suggestion that we engage in a pillow fight. Here, a rather more upbeat individual tonked one of the visitors on the head with a cushion as they stepped inside and urged us to take up arms, which we did, but only briefly, pillow fights never having been high on my agenda.

Dopaminelands Junco Room

Onwards to the junco room which turned out to be the jewel in Dopamineland’s crown, immersing us in images of forests and flowers, which were beamed on multiple mirrored pillars while hypnotic music lulled us into a meditative mood. But it wasn’t all nature. There were also images of plastic yellow ducks that switched seamlessly to Hiroshima style explosions and little pink pills which I couldn’t help thinking might, in fact, be essential to the experience.

We lingered a while, recognizing that this could be our best chance at a dopamine rush, before emerging eventually into the popcorn room, where we were supposed to feel as though we were inside a popcorn maker, though it’s debatable how happy that would have made me.

There were images of popcorn on one wall and a lady serving the real deal in a corner. We accepted the small bucket of corn on offer and ambled towards our journey’s finale: a room with yellow walls which we were encouraged to cover with graffiti.

I was tempted to write something exhilaratingly rude but everyone else appeared to have entered into the spirit of the occasion – indeed, their dopamine levels had positively soared. That, or, having coughed up, they were determined to get their money’s worth.

Call me stupid, but I couldn’t work out how crossing a hostile floor or writing on a wall was meant to flood my cynical veins with dopamine; nor why being surrounded by virtual nature could possibly beat the trees and flowers of yore.

Dare I suggest that Dopamineland is basically another attempt to cash in on our mental health, or lack of it, beside being an elaborate selfie opp?

Billed as “a brand-new, multisensory, immersive experience that channels the limitless imagination of your inner child and transforms it into reality,” I reflected on how far marketing has come since I actually was a child and split my sides laughing at the local fair.

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