Remember how cool the internet was when it first gained popularity? We were blown away by the pure genius of the technology, so what if it took an hour to download a 3MB song, we had the dope and every time we went onto the web we buzzed! Then came broadband and dial-up just didn’t make the cut anymore. Instead of the high we got from simply being connected, we became frustrated and stressed out as we raced to meet our deadlines. Everything inside us screamed that it was time to upgrade, time to get rid of the cursed dial-up.
So what exactly is the shelf life of a new technology? Or rather, what is the shelf life of the joy we feel toward something, someone, anything! It seems that in all things, it is the chemistry going on in our heads that determine how we feel toward something, and the chemical that sends us on the high is no other than Dopamine. Dopamine is a lot more than the just the brains reward system, it is closely associated with movement, addiction and much more.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, one of those chemicals that are responsible for transmitting signals in between the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain. A Neurotransmitter release does not “cause” feelings. Neurotransmitter release is one level of description (a very low level) for understanding what is going on in the brain. Feelings and actions are another (higher) level of description. Neurotransmitter release doesn’t cause a feeling (or vice versa), it is the feeling!
In the 1990s, Wolfram Schultz and colleagues recorded that an increase in the firing of these dopamine neurons is a sign that more dopamine is being released in the brain. He did an experiment where he switched on a light before delivering juice to a pair of monkeys. Initially, the dopamine cells responded to the juice, but over time, as the animal began to understand that juice always followed lights, the dopamine response went away, even though the animals continued to gulp the juice down. Then, when the researchers unexpectedly stopped the flow of juice, dopamine decreased.
It seems the brain continuously makes predictions and compares outcomes with those predictions. These expectations (predictions) have a distinct impact on the amount of dopamine released when the event actually occurs. Where there is an element of surprise more dopamine is released, whereas if we expected a particular outcome then less dopamine is released!
As mentioned earlier Dopamine is commonly associated with “unexpected reward.” Dopamine though – as shown by Schultz’ experiment – is the mechanism by which the brain rewires itself to take new information into account when selecting actions. A surprising reward is cause for updating the brain’s goal state values and action priorities. However once the brain’s model of the environment has been updated, the reward isn’t surprising anymore, and the transient dopamine release goes away.
With this is mind, it seems Dopamine is more accurately viewed as a mechanism of motivation than “feeling good.” It’s not that dopamine causes motivation, it’s that dopamine release is the mechanism underlying action prioritization, which is the basis of motivation.
What you are “motivated to do” is whatever the action-generating part of your brain thinks is highest priority. This can be in conflict with your conceptual model of self, in which case you find yourself feeling “compelled” to do things that you don’t “want” to do (compulsion) or “wanting” to do something that goes against your own values and goals (addiction).
The important thing to note is that Dopamine doesn’t change the pleasure (or lack thereof) involved with a behavior, just how much we want to do it. For example, rats that have been artificially depleted of dopamine simply won’t eat, but when force fed, they make facial expressions which suggest they actually enjoy it. Similarly, increasing dopamine makes rats crave sweet rewards more, but doesn’t change how much they actually like them. Even if you don’t like something at all you can end up wanting to do it if it causes some kind of consistent dopamine release.
Studies on roulette players have recorded as much activity in the nucleus accumbens when punters lose money with a miserable near-miss as when they have an enjoyable win. In this case, dopamine seems not to be signaling pleasure but indicating how close you got to the reward and encouraging another attempt. This works well when success depends on skill but falsely compels us in games of chance.
Studies confirm the motivation-dopamine link in a number of interesting ways. Behavioral neuroscientist John Salamone confirmed the link in an animal study on rats who were given the choice of one pile of food or another pile of food twice the size but behind a small fence. The rats with lowered levels of dopamine almost always took the easy way out, choosing the small pile instead of jumping the fence for greater reward.
In another study, a team of Vanderbilt scientists mapped the brains of “go-getters” and “slackers” and found that those willing to work hard for rewards had higher dopamine levels in the striatum and prefrontal cortex — two areas known to impact motivation and reward. Among slackers, dopamine was present in the anterior insula, an area of the brain that is involved in emotion and risk perception.
So now we have maintained that Dopamine is more than just a rewards system. We don’t release it when we obtain something that satisfies us, but the neurotransmitter actually acts before that, and actually encourages us to act in order to achieve. The level of dopamine depends on individuals, so some people are more persistent than others to achieve a goal.
With this in mind we should seek ways to increase our Dopamine levels so that we can stay motivated and keep achieving. Unfortunately Dopamine in the brain is organic and cannot be supplemented by food or meds.
Luckily though, all we have to do is train our brain. Whether it’s important to get the broadband or to rather save the subscription in order to visit the Serangeti Plains, reaching a new goal will put our pleasure centers into party mode.
Here are some ways to increase your Dopamine levels
1. Make a To-Do List
When you finish a task, dopamine increases, regardless of the size of the task. Make a list at the beginning of each day or week of things that need done, and check them off as you go. Physically checking a task off of a to-do list is satisfying to the brain’s dopamine levels. The sense of accomplishment provides a reward feeling, producing more dopamine in the brain.
2. Get Creative
Getting your creative juices flowing is a great way to naturally increase your potential for feeling good, achieving goals and becoming inspired. When writers, painters, musicians, dancers and other artists get into their creative mode, they become hyper-focused, entering a state referred to as flow. Dopamine is the brain chemical that allows a person to achieve flow state. Creative thinking, coming up with ideas and creating something unique will increase your sense of accomplishment and signal your reward center, allowing dopamine to increase.
While the physical benefits of exercise are well-known, the list of mental benefits associated with being active are just as important. Exercise helps to relieve stress and increase productivity. It also boosts dopamine levels. Exercise increases multiple neurotransmitters like serotonin, endorphins and dopamine. The good news is, you don’t have to run a marathon to feel the effects! Hiking, riding a bike or going for a jog will keep your body active and produce the results you’re looking for.
4. Keep a Streak Going
Continuing to check off points on a list can keep your dopamine levels up! Start a calendar and write down anything continuous that you want to accomplish. Maybe you want to work out Monday through Friday every week, cook healthy meals every Tuesday and Thursday, or finish a new book by the end of each week. Every time you put a check mark next to your goal, you feel a sense of accomplishment that increases dopamine levels in the brain. Keeping a streak going without missing a day is a way to feel proud of yourself, stay productive, and ensure that the dopamine levels in your brain are healthy!
5. Listen to Music
Listening to music that you love increases dopamine levels. Scientists say that listening to your favorite jams has the same effect on the brain as eating your favorite food or watching your favorite television show. Identifying with the lyrics or really feeling the music can make you feel good, deep down to your core. The increase in dopamine is more temporary, but it can provide a quick mood-boost when needed
Goals don’t have to be big. Start with your daily activities as goals. Did you make it through the morning without coffee? FANTASTIC! Acknowledge the achievement.
If a particular task seems too overwhelming to begin, break it into smaller goals, and trust that dopamine will build up as you achieve your way through to the end.
Other hobbies that are known to increase dopamine include bird watching, jigsaw puzzling and treasure hunting.