I’ve been studying psychology for roughly 5 years — give or take — and so you can imagine my surprise when I learned, for the first time today, that dopamine actually isn’t released when you take a bite of that chocolate cake, but, rather, in anticipation of it.
That’s right. If you were to measure the release of dopamine in the brain before, during, and after receiving a reward, you’d find that all activity of this particular neurotransmitter would come to a grinding halt as soon as that first taste of reward was experienced.
What’s more is that research has shown that in an environment where receipt of a reward is vastly more unpredictable, such as gambling, the signaling of dopamine neither diminishes, nor disappears, even when a reward is not attained. Rather, it was found that equal amounts of dopamine are released in an area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, both when a player loses a bet, as well as when they win.
So why is this so fascinating?
Well, I can only speak for myself when I say this, but making any amount of progress in understanding the way the brain works is one of the more exciting ways I like to use my noggin. Though it can certainly be argued that all learning is, to a certain extent, an intrinsically valuable process, it makes sense that when we examine the mechanisms responsible for our own mental functions, we enable ourselves to better grasp our control over them, in the first place.
Alright, so dopamine isn’t about pleasure — quite honestly, I’m still coming to terms with the overwhelming feeling of being lied to, but alas, tis the beauty about the ever-changing field of psychology — so what exactly is this neurotransmitter useful for?
Like most chemical processes in the brain, neuro-science is still trying to decipher precisely how and why these dopaminergic reactions may occur. And if, by chance, you’re as interested in jumping down the rabbit hole as I was this past week, look into some of the recent research hypotheses regarding dopamine, such as the prediction error system, or incentive salience.
What you’ll find is that while there may not be any clear cut, single model of how dopamine functions in the brain — likely because dopamine doesn’t function in any clear cut single mode of operation to begin with — we do know enough about the neurotransmitter to draw some meaningful, actionable conclusions that serve to benefit our approach to motivation, and thus, our life, in general.
Here are some of my takeaways:
- Assess your addictions
Dopamine is responsible for every ounce of our motivation, and we ought to treat it accordingly. Not only are we all, well and truly, addicted to our smart-phones, in general, but social media apps such as Instagram and Facebook are constantly updating their algorithms in order to maximize our dopamine-levels and keep us hooked on the unpredictability of reward. Games such as PokemonGO also structure their gameplay to leverage this same anticipatory quality of reward — which makes sense, in retrospect, seeing as the app was practically single-handedly responsible for getting teenagers into the great outdoors in the summer of 2016.
Aside from technological manipulation of the motivational systems within our brain, rewards in the form of drug use — ranging all the way from coffee to alcohol to methamphetamine and opioids — can have serious long-term effects on the way the brain processes dopamine, thus altering a much wider array of our normal functioning, in the process.
Food, sex, and any other activities that possess even remotely addictive qualities are no different, and monitoring and maintaining healthy interaction with these items is a crucial step in protecting your dopamine responses. By switching off notifications on your phone, and being mindful about your engagement in habitual behaviour-reward systems will do wonders for preserving your motivation to accomplish the things that really matter to you.
Tl;dr — get unhooked on addictions that don’t serve your long-term goals, and make a conscious effort to protect your dopamine.
2. Anticipate the hell out of your goals
In the case of gambling, we know that dopamine release occurrs in both the absence and the presence of reward, say landing on the right number in roulette. This indicates that rather than being responsible for pleasure signaling in the brain, dopamine actually has far more to to with the thrill of the game, and the motivation to continue on playing, especially when we’re faced with a series of oh-so-close near-misses. That’s what dopamine does — it tell you to keep going, keep playing, keep trying.
Thankfully, we can use this to our advantage. One of the things that separates human beings from our primate counterparts, is the ability to maintain dopamine production over vastly longer periods of time. For example, where dopamine might motivate a chimpanzee to continue pressing a button for 10–15 minutes in anticipation of food, and thus, a reward, you won’t find a monkey with the dopaminergic tenacity to go to school, get an education, apply for internships, and work in a partially transferable field in order to, eventually, reap the long-term benefits of a rewarding career.
Humans on the other hand, excel at this, and we can make it an even easier job for our brains if we learn to scatter various rewards for our prolonged efforts along the way. Sure, many goals are rewarding in and of themselves — like working on your dream bod, or saving up money for a house— but if we, say, decide that for every two weeks we successfully adhere to our workout regime, we get to treat ourselves to a manicure at salon, we’re making damn sure that our dopamine receptors aren’t taking any breaks.
Tl;dr — bribe yourself with short-term rewards, and strategically direct the power of motivation to the areas of your life that matter, to you, the most.
3. Surround yourself with productive stimuli
Aside from motivation, dopamine is also thought to play a large role in nerve regulation and locomotion as a result of chemical reactions that take place following both physical, and visual stimulation. Regardless of how promising this discovery may be for the study of degenerative diseases, it helps to illustrate just how interconnected dopaminergic release is with our experience of the external world.
By surrounding yourself with visual cues of the reward at the end of the tunnel — calendars, sticky-notes, and even the wallpaper of your phone will do— you are, once more, sparking the release of this valuable neurotransmitters, and committing yourself further to accomplishing your goals. One thing we so often misinterpret when we examine successful people, is that their will-power must be stronger than the average person in order to allow them to avoid all the various temptations and distractions that would steer them off their course.
In reality, successful people surround themselves with reminders and motivators of their success, and they discard any stimuli that are not serving their goals. If you don’t have the processed food in your pantry to visually trigger you, allowing dopamine to get itself all excited in the first place, then you’re not going to struggle as much in sticking to your diet — point blank.
Tl;dr — create a physical space that allows your brain to motivate you, even unconsciously, to focus more on your goals and not submit to your vices.
Alexandra Walker-Jones — October 2020