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Human Behavior - The Dopamine Hijack

Updated: Jan 17

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If ever you've interacted with somebody, who just doesn't seem to have any drive, they've given up, or if you've interacted with somebody who seems to have endless drive and energy, what you are looking in those two circumstances, without a question, is a difference in the level of a certain molecule, circulating in their system. The level of this molecule is the primary determinant of how motivated we are, how excited we are, how outward facing we are and how willing we are, to lean into life, look, pursue, and to crave for things outside of our self.

This molecule is Dopamine. Dopamine is what's called a neuromodulator, which simply refers to the fact, that it is a chemical that modulates a bunch of things in our brain and body.

How Dopamine Works

To understand how dopamine is released, it is important to keep three things in mind. We have a baseline level of dopamine that is circulating all the time. A peak that is triggered by thought, activity or a substance and a subsequent drop.

So, if I were to desire a cheesecake, I am using cheesecake as an example but you can pretty much plug in anything here. Coffee, cigarette, a new phone or even long term goals like promotion a degree etc, and there's an increase in dopamine. A wee bit more than the current baseline. But, here's the key thing. This is super important to understand, after this mini peak, very soon after I realized my desire for something, that peak that was caused by my desire, comes down not just to the baseline but drops below the baseline. And it's that drop below baseline, that triggers our desire to go out and find that cheesecake. So that drop below baseline is fundamental to the whole process.

Let me repeat, So let's say that I desire a cheesecake, there's an increase in dopamine, then very quickly it comes down but not just to the baseline, but rather below it.

This gap between our baseline levels and the new drop is what motivates us and drives us forward to either get back to the baseline but more often than not chase that high. This is what we call craving! Craving for coffee, chocolate, sugar, even love, companionship etc. And if this drop is steep enough, then it is more than just a craving, it’s almost painful and we feel demotivated and nothing interests us, which eventually leads to addiction.

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For instance, when we initially want something, or we think we want something, it puts us into motion, but then pretty quickly, we're starting to feel the pain of not having that, and that is also contributing to our desire to pursue that thing.

Our craving for things is not just about craving for those things per se, It's also our desire to relieve the pain of not having those things. Let me repeat! Our craving for things is not just about craving for those things per se, It's also our desire to relieve the pain of not having those things.

So, the craving is not exactly about coffee/companionship/promotion, but rather the pain of not having it. It might sound and feel the same, but there is a pretty subtle but a profound distinction.

If we watch for it, we'll start to see it or experience it within our self. And if we can internalize that and start to develop an awareness around it, we will be in an amazing position to leverage all sorts of aspects of the dopamine system, in order to increase our motivation, especially when things get really hard or when we have the propensity to procrastinate.

Evolutionary premise for Dopamine - Why do we have a baseline?

Why would we have a dopamine system like this? Why would we have a dopamine system at all? To understand that, as usual we have to go back in time. If dopamine is a driver for us to seek things, it makes perfect sense as to why it would have a baseline level and it would have peaks.

Dopamine drives us to go out and look for things. So be it some fruit or an animal to kill or seek a mate, explore new worlds. In doing so, we will experience some sort of dopamine release, once we find the reward of the seeking. But then it needs to return to some lower level. Why? Well, think about it. If it just stayed there, you would never continue to forage for more.

In modern context, you got your promotion, a hike or a degree, you worked so hard to achieve. Now, once you get it, what’s next? That cannot be the end of the road, because if that was the case, then there would be nothing to push us forward, to strive for or seek more. Hence It doesn't just increase our baseline and then stay there. It goes back down, which provides us the motivation to pursue things.

Dopamine and Burnout

Flip side to this is, you would have noticed some people just simply ride at a level a little bit higher. They're a little bit more excited, they're a little bit more motivated. If you looked at dopamine simply as a function, as a chemical function of peaks and baseline, now you know why it makes sense, a person, after several years of work hard, play hard would say, you know what, I'm feeling kind of burnt out. I just don’t feel I have the same energy that I did a few years ago.

What's happening here is, they’ve been spiking their dopamine through so many different activities over a course of period, that their baseline is progressively dropping. And in this case it can be very subtle. And that's actually a very sinister function of dopamine. Which is, it can often drop in imperceptible ways, but then, once it reaches a threshold of low dopamine, we just feel like, we can't really get pleasure from anything anymore.

Chronically trying to spike your dopamine in order to enhance your motivation, focus and drive will absolutely undermine all of these in the long run.

Reward and Motivation - Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

So, what motivates us? How should we get ourselves motivated? To answer these questions, we need to look into an experiment that was done at Stanford many years ago. The experiment involved observing a classroom of young children and observing which activities kids like to do in their free time. And what the researchers did was, observe the children who selected, by their own choice, to draw pictures. And they measured how much of the free time, these children elected to use for drawing/painting.

Then what they did was, they started introducing rewards to these children. They started putting a gold star, or in some cases a silver star on their pieces of artwork and telling them what a good job they did. And the kids really liked that. In fact, who wouldn't? They're not only doing an activity that they like but there also getting a reward for it.

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So, you can probably see where this is all going. What they were doing was, they were increasing the amount of dopamine that these children experience. You let them do the activity and then you start rewarding them for that activity, especially when you surprise them with a reward for an activity they already like. They report that being a much more pleasurable experience than, had they just done the activity.

On a side note, this is the whole premise behind how casinos and SM works, and how people get addicted. Intermittent Reward!

Going back to the experiment, then, what they did with these children was, they stopped giving them the reward. And then they observed what percentage of their free time they spent doing that activity.

What they observed was, a drop in the total amount of time, that the children elected to do this activity that initially they were doing quite a lot of.

In other words, their total satisfaction, desire or motivation to engage in this activity, dropped below what it was prior to ever receiving a reward. And again, this has been repeated in a variety of contexts and different populations, different cultures, different countries, men, women, boys, girls, lots of different backgrounds.

So, what we are seeing here is, prior to introduction of rewards, the children were intrinsically motivated, however post reward, their focus shifted to extrinsic motivation, which was the gold star.

Effort vs Reward - Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Reinforcement

So, How do we unlock the holy grail of motivation? Most people work hard in order to achieve some end goal. When we receive rewards, even if we give ourselves rewards for something, we tend to associate less pleasure with the actual activity itself, that evoked the reward. If we get a peak in dopamine from a reward, it's going to lower our baseline and the cognitive interpretation is that, we didn't really do the activity because we enjoyed the activity, but rather we did it for the reward.

Image: Verywell / Joshua Seong

Because the reward comes at the end, we start to dissociate the neural circuits for dopamine reward, that would have normally been active during the activity. And because it all arrives at the end, over time, we have the experience of less and less pleasure from that particular activity while we're doing it.

This reminds me of a scene in a movie, I watched recently, where the hero of the movie, who is on death row, gets a visit from the guy who puts him on that death row. What he sees is, the hero doing pull ups. So he asks him, what’s the point of wasting your time on working out, when you just got a few days to live. To which, the hero quotes a verse from a famous scripture, which goes something like ‘Do your karma, as in, do your work but don’t attach yourself with the results of your work, as the results are not totally in our control’. Which is pretty much what we are talking about here. Results of your work being the ‘Reward’

The neural mechanism of cultivating intrinsic motivation and a growth mindset, involves learning to access pleasure, from the effort itself and not on the reward at the end.

Does this mean that rewards are bad? No! What I am saying is, we have to shift our focus from the reward, to the effort part! We can evoke dopamine release from the friction and the challenge that we happen to be in. If we are focused only on the reward that comes at the end, we completely eliminated, the ability to generate those circuits and the rewarding process from the friction while in effort.

So, do not start layering in other sources of dopamine in order to get started or in order to be able to continue, but rather, subjectively start to attach the feeling of friction and effort, to an internally generated reward system. And we can tell our self the effort part is the good part. Of course, it ain’t gonna be easy, It may not even feel good, but as we keep at it, we slowly start training our dopamine system, to access reward from the effort itself.

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We will find the rewards, meaning the dopamine release inside of effort, if we repeat this over and over again. And what's beautiful about it is that, it starts to become reflexive for all types of effort.

If you observe any of the great athletes or even guys like David Goggins, this is what they are tapping into, to excel at what they do.

When we focus only on the trophy, only on the degree, only on the win or any end goal as the reward, we undermine this entire process. The ability to access pleasure from effort itself, which is without question, the most powerful aspect of dopamine and our biology of dopamine.

Take home message here is, Don’t spike dopamine prior to engaging in effort by giving yourself some incentive. And don't spike dopamine after engaging in effort, by rewarding yourself. Learn to spike your dopamine from effort itself.

Again, from an evolutionary perspective it makes total sense. Think about it, not every trail leads to a reward, which in this case is food or resources. If reward was the objective, then every time we fail to find whatever we are looking for, would completely demoralize us and never engage in that activity again, which is totally counter-intuitive.

The real purpose of dopamine is not in the end goal but rather the pursuit of that goal.

Finding pleasure in the effort needed to attain the reward, will positively reinforce and signal the brain, to engage in the same behaviour, which would ultimately lead to the goal! And if we can do that, with an intrinsic sense of pleasure, well that is nothing short of magic. But of course it's not magic, it's just biology. We all have access to it and it’s just a matter of being aware of this whole mechanism and putting it into practice.

The key point here is, there is no pill, reward, promotion, bonus, motivational speech or a self help book that can replace intrinsic motivation. And if it's happening, with enjoyment without the need to layer in additional tools, well, then you have really tapped into the Source, or what it’s called, as a state of ‘FLOW’ in Positive Psychology.

To end on a philosophical note!

Dopamine is the positive reinforcement neurotransmitter. It is a molecule that says, this feels good and I want more of it. Now there is another molecule which is the opposite. It's the neurotransmitter that says, this feels good and I don't want or need anymore. Those are clearly two different things. And the problem is, if we don't know the difference, then we are basically subject to continuing to try to reward our self and set us up for the chase! The hedonic treadmill. We get ahead by two inches and immediately it starts pulling us backward. This is nature’s cruel hoax. We end up on this hedonic treadmill of more and more.

However, there is another molecule, which is Serotonin. It is responsible for happiness, contentment, satisfaction. It is a neurotransmitter that is inhibitory in nature. Which means, there’s no such things as overdosing on too much happiness but there’s one thing that down regulates serotonin, and that is dopamine.

So, the more pleasure we seek, the more unhappy we get!!

A lot of this is based on talks by Andrew Huberman, Robert Lustig and self reflection

1 則留言

RaviTeja Palagummi
RaviTeja Palagummi

Great read. Well written.

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