Welcome to the Don’t Get Stuck series, where we explore the causes and effects of conditions that can impede our chances for productivity and success.
In this article I will focus on the role of a single molecule that controls our goal forming, creative imagination and addiction — the neurochemical dopamine.
Although there are many neurochemicals that affect our here-and-now comfort and peace within the present, dopamine plays the critical role in what we strive for in our futures, with our thinking and planning (Bandhari, 2019). Let’s unpackage some mistakes people can make in self-hacking their goal system, to break us out of habits and cycles that no longer serve us.
Dopamine controls strategic thinking
When we observe stimuli that we desire, there is a rise of dopamine within our brain that correlates to the intensity of the desire — that sense of importance. This single molecule effectively controls our expectation of future reward — the possible treasure we believe we could have or experience, by taking certain actions.
This goal system feeds into a control system — the level of dopamine triggers a cascade of strategic thinking and creative imagination that leads to task proposals to consider. We tend to think of the emergence of these action-proposal thoughts as something outside of our control, but in reality, it is a predictable consequence of our body’s response to stimuli, and expectation of reward (Banhari, 2019).
Naturally, people self-hack their own reward system, but our external environment can predate on human predictability to trick people into bad trades.
Reward System Hacking
The types of things that trigger the most dopamine response are associated with future-focused goals that may require many steps and stages of strategy. Things such as:
But this reward circuitry can be fooled by imitations, and dopamine spike-seeking is specifically what underpins addictions. A drug addict may discover a way to create an enormous spike — much larger than what normally motivates anyone to do any of the things in the list above. The reason smoking crack cocaine is much more addictive than snorting it, is simply the scale of the dopamine spike generated — due to the larger lung surface area than the nostrils. The reward system is fragile and hackable.
Inspired by human biology, when software engineers create machine learning systems to play, for example, racing car games, generally the human designers create a ‘reward function’ for teaching the software what is important. The idea would be that the software can learn to not crash the vehicle, and pass flags as fast as possible, by a reward score for action choices. However, it is easy for the model to become stuck ‘hacking’ the reward system. It turns out, the software actually always cheats if it can discover how — such as circling the first goal flag indefinitely. (Everett, Kumar & Hutter, 2019)
Although there is something pleasing in a simple plan, such as harvesting an easy sub-goal for points, it ignores what may be a much larger reward out there.
Being a Dopamine Junkie
It is easy to become trapped in this world full of temptations; our environment — the shapes and colors of treats, the serenade of music, the exotic fractals in fashion — aren’t random creations. They were built with an intentionality designed to control the observer by triggering evolutionary responses to stimuli. The technology that surrounds and underpins our lives is evolving rapidly and becoming more hypnotic, with corporations like Netflix utilising your data to develop new tailored shows that can target your demographic and interests more specifically.
In time, content generation will occur for each user in real time, with software having the capability to render realistic scenes that a specific viewer wishes to see.
But, the sense of reward for viewing any content decreases as it grows less exotic — so a habit grows more extreme. Addicts will ‘chase the dragon’ for a high that is impossible for them to experience.
A dopamine spike moves earlier in time, where possible, so your happiest moment may be the stage of beginning to make that cup of coffee, rather than in drinking it. In the same way, a person motivated to play a computer game (to start) will not necessarily enjoy the actual game — for much of the enjoyment of the ‘here and now’ (the experiencing rather than the future seeking) is from non-dopamine neurochemicals — so the dopamine addict will struggle to enjoy just what they have.
Genetics plays a major role in neurochemistry expression, and so is a major factor for the spectrum of sensity. Dopamine insensitivity is regarded as having generally a likely role in people with ADHD (Duggal, 2020). Any dopamine insensitive person is likely to be more disorganised, and somewhat ‘unconcerned’ about planning for the future, and so are more distractible. A life task, like cooking/cleaning/gardening, etc, will have little ongoing sense of reward, and so won’t get to the top of the priorities pile, until there are few choices left.
It is easy to pursue habits of addiction — seeking out the dopamine spike source. A way to compensate for dopamine insensitivity, when considering tasks/goals, is to explicitly consider — ‘what would a dopamine insensitive person normally ignore?’ Perhaps the unnoticed piles of things will suddenly come to your attention.
If our default mode of behaviour is always seeking out more dopamine, then this makes a person easily distracted from completing a tedious, yet important, task.
Succeeding involves work. We need the maturity that is necessary to strive forward doing potentially tedious things — and can create new reward feedback loops, by small incremental wins, supplying dopamine as we succeed in stages in a task (or progress in exercises). There isn’t something inherently wrong with partaking in something that provides a dopamine spike (like a coffee) — it is about being consciously aware of the trade that we are making. With enough information, we can recognise a bad trade, or what is actually only a reward imitation, and so reclaim control of attentional focus.
- Gambling — Poker machines flash their lights in tremendous victory (you are a winner), but more importantly, randomly. Our brains want us to pay attention to apparent opportunities that ‘might be missed’, so the unpredictable chance at success multiplies the strength of the neurochemistry encoding.
- Sugary and fatty foods — Fast food stores will trade you a dopamine spike for your money and health. We are hungry for fats, salts and sugar, because in the evolutionary history of our genetics, the people that didn’t highly prioritise eating high calorie foods died off. The historic threat of starvation has gifted us a legacy of being prone to over-consume high calorie foods, and commercial products evolve (themselves under survival pressure) to imitate what will trigger our reward systems.
Once upon a time, indulgent food consumption would have been in beat with periods of starvation; Whereas the modern human, is unlikely to be going on multi-day fasts, in the ways of their ancestors, and rather are more likely to be chronically overfed, damaging their metabolism.
- Content streams — such as video streams (tv, youtube, netflix), photo streams (like instagram), music streams (like youtube), social media streams (like facebook), news streams, or all combined, like Reddit, give us this sense of discovery. What next can be found, if you keep scrolling?The unpredictable nature, of not knowing what will be revealed when scrolling the mouse down, is what makes it hard to stop.
- Pornography — dopamine peaks at orgasm, and motivates a significant amount of strategic thinking. Pornography is an imitation of sex, so leads to a profoundly well-founded industry.
- Computer games — particularly those with random features, such as loot boxes, or collector cards packs. Game companies hire neurochemistry professionals for advice on how to make their games more addictive (Clay, 2012).
Why not be a dopamine junkie?
In order to live an interesting life, by successfully achieving challenging projects, to get past that first goal flag, we need to be able to resist the allure of distracting time sinks, and bad habits that pull us away from our long term goals.
Difficult and important challenges require focus.
Raising consciousness (partly) means to not immediately obey the first desire that springs into your head — as an animal might. A powerful tool for growing personal willpower — is practising (like flexing a muscle) your self control — such as with a water-only fast.
Something you discover, having resolved to not eat for a long time — is that your thoughts aren’t you, because you will keep having your patterns of old thoughts — ‘eat the chocolate’, even though you have fully resolved not to eat anything.
Rather than identifying with our thoughts as being us — we are the vessel for within which we have thoughts, as proposals or creative imaginations, to be considered. These thoughts aren’t meant to always be obeyed, constrained only by opportunity.
On a long fast, you realise food is part of how you normally entertain and reward yourself — and without that signal, you must fill that void. It is better that the food we eat is tied to long term coherent plans, than short term reward signal hacking, because companies are trying to hack our natural reward signals with fatty & sugary foods.
We protect our future self, by not being slave to a present impulse that does not serve our long-term health benefits. Allowing yourself to be bored and not instinctively reaching for your phone, gives you the chance for peaceful engagement in the now, with the potential to discover new freedoms — including the freedom of not always needing entertainment.
Nutrition & Supplementation
Our neurotransmitters are created from amino-acids, and it is possible we are not getting enough of the right building blocks in our diets. Diets that are high in processed sugar and saturated fats may be nutrient deficient enough to affect our moods.
L-tyrosine, an amino acid that builds dopamine, comes from proteins. Supplementation with a neurochemistry precursor is always an option — that a doctor can advise about. Boosting vitamin D, magnesium, and omega-3 essential fatty acids, may help raise dopamine levels (Dopamine deficiency: Symptoms, causes, and treatment (medicalnewstoday.com). (Cadman, 2018).
For a kick of serotonin, you (and other animals) try to one-up each other, with a quip, or a jest, or a physical demonstration. Serotonin is the neurochemical that rewards you for your sense of status and confidence. Self-hypnosis (auto-suggestion), or even delusion, can elevate your serotonin levels by focusing on your wins/achievements, and positive aspects of life. (Wehbe & Safar, 2015).
Taking on new challenges, like a new exercise, gives you the chance to overcome an obstacle, and so bolsters confidence, which gives the serotonin boost. Getting out of your comfort zone, like taking a cold and then hot shower, over time makes a material difference to a sense of bravery and capability, when facing the next challenge.
Serotonin levels are affected by light exposure — so people who stay indoors all day will tend to feel worse — and people in countries with low light for whole seasons are at higher risk of mental health problems without light supplementation.
You can potentially try serotonin supplementation — such as with 5-HTP — but consult your medical health care professional first.
When you are attracted to someone, you get not just a dopamine and serotonin hit, but also Oxytocin — generally known as the love or intimacy hormone. It appears to build relaxation, trust and empathy — all extremely helpful when bonding with someone who you may be intimate with in the future. For example, an experiment by Theodoriduo et al. (2009) showed a correlation between elevated oxytocin levels and finding facial features more attractive in others, meaning that this hormone can effectively assist in better affiliative behaviour between people.
Affectionate touch will boost oxytocin in both parties, but it is the growing closeness that is rewarded, which will include just sending text messages, or emails, as you build a relationship.
Oxytocin levels affect your sense of in/out group importance. High enough oxytocin can make you feel more disgusted or prejudicial to those you judge as being in the out groups.
Recruit Endorphins — the survival hormone
Endorphins give us a feeling of euphoria — and also reduce pain. They partly have the role of reducing distraction from what is important — such as fleeing from predators. The biggest sources of endorphins are:
- stretching/jiggling — wear and tear
- dark chocolate
- tv drama
- exercise — runners high, workout rush.
Building new neural pathways
When we try a new exercise, and make incremental progress, we are rewarded with dopamine. Step-by-step accomplishment of goals releases dopamine, and so workout progress builds a new neural pathway that can resist old habits. Stopping old behaviour tends to require starting new behaviours — trading an old bad habit for a better one.
If you would like to learn more, perhaps if getting started is the problem, reading our next part in the Don’t Get Stuck series may help, on Torpor (Low motivation).
Bandhari, S. (June 19, 2019). “What is Dopamine?”, WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-dopamine
Cadman, B. (Jan 17, 2018). “Dopamine Deficiency: What You need to Know”, Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320637
Clay, R.A. (2012). “Video Game Design and Development”, gradPSYCH Magazine. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2012/01/hot-careers
Duggal, N. (Jan 15, 2020). “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): The Role of Dopamine”, Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/adhd-dopamine
Everett, T., Kumar, R. & Hutter, M. (Aug 15, 2019). “Designing Agent Incentives to Avoid Reward Tampering”, DeepMind Safety Research. https://medium.com/@deepmindsafetyresearch/designing-agent-incentives-to-avoid-reward-tampering-4380c1bb6cd
Theodoridou, A., Rowe, A. C., Penton-Voak, I. S., & Rogers, P. J. (2009). “Oxytocin and social perception: oxytocin increases perceived facial trustworthiness and attractiveness”, Hormones and behavior, 56(1), 128–132.
Wehbe, J. & Safar, Y. (2015). “Hypnosis and Physiotherapy”, Kinésithérapie, la Revue, 15(168), e1-e-10.