Dopamine: Friend or Foe? – Part 2

Last time I explained that dopamine is the reward drug the brain produces when we do something that promotes our life or reproduction and that getting this drug is the reason we do many things.  I also mentioned how this drug could be harnessed to make effective life choices based on how much dopamine the results of our decisions will produce.

The question is, though, what about goals we resist?  What about goals that will give us a better life, but we don't do because we don't feel excited about them.  Maybe other people enjoy them, but we don't.  How can we harness dopamine to work for us in these situations?

I recently read a book about the physiological changes Wall Street traders have called: “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf” by John Coates.  Among other interesting insights, he discusses the main reason we and other animals have a brain.  We may use our brains to understand this world and make decisions, but in the end, our brain is designed to “plan and execute physical movement.” 

Other life forms like plants and trees may have consciousness, but they more or less stay in one place and passively receive energy/reproduce so they don't need to think about how to go out and get them.  Animals, on the other hand, actively work for food and reproduction.  This requires that we make choices about how to go out and acquire them and our brains are designed to do just that.  Want to move around?  Brain.  No need to move around?  No brain.

Descartes should have said, “I think, therefore I do.”

So, how does this fit in with dopamine?  We know that dopamine is released when we experience stimuli like food, winning and sex but researchers have also found that dopamine also motivates us to go out and search for these experiences.  They found that dopamine is released not only upon experiencing them but also before and in anticipation of experiencing them. 

It goes like this: you feel pleasure (dopamine) when you eat chocolate cake. Mary’s Bakery has a fabulous chocolate cake and you know that if you go Mary’s and have her yummy chocolate cake you will feel good.  Already, at that moment of thinking about Mary’s cake, you start feeling a little excited.  You can imagine how it feels to eat one of her cakes and were you to decide to go get one, it would be a piece of cake to go, right?  (Pun intended).  In other words, you’d be highly motivated to go.  This is your brain producing dopamine in anticipation of the experience of eating Mary’s fabulous cake in order to get you to go out and have that experience.

However, do you know that Mary is going to have cake today?  You assume she will, right?  What if Mary got sick or ran out of ingredients or aliens stole all her cakes?  You can’t know for certain that you will get the experience you desire but what matters here what you think will happen.  You imagine it’s going to be cake heaven at Mary’s so your brain starts producing dopamine in anticipation of that experience and you soon find yourself on the way. 

Dopamine drives us to get out and do things.  Dopamine = motivation.

So, let’s use this knowledge to our advantage.  Pretend you want to get fit but really hate working out.  You know you should, but don't like it for whatever reason.  For you, exercise ≠ dopamine.  In order to get yourself excited to work out, let’s use your imagination to trick your brain into thinking that exercise will feel good.

You can do this by imagining how great your life will be with a fit body.  Imagine the compliments you will get from people, the excitement of looking at toned muscles in the mirror, the joy of flexibility, the camaraderie of working with others or the solitude of being able to be alone.  Imagine how you will feel after a workout: the calm, the relaxed muscle feeling and/or the sense of accomplishment.

Imagining these results and enjoying how that feels will start to release dopamine.  You might even feel a bit of interest to exercise.  Just as imagining the experience of Mary’s chocolate cake gets you excited, this way of imagining the benefits of exercise will start producing dopamine and the desire to have that experience.

Now, in order to get enough motivation to actually make it happen, you need to practice this technique.  You need to do it often and consistently so that you can strengthen the idea in your brain that exercise = dopamine.  Do it morning and night, after eating, after work, when you turn the lights on in your room, etc. Sooner or later, you will find yourself kind of interested in doing some kind of exercise, and actually taking the necessary steps to get fit.

I use this technique with my clients to get them excited and ready to achieve goals they resist.  Together we come up with a vision that gets them excited to achieve their goal.  Once they have the vision, they practice it frequently and soon naturally find themselves doing what they didn't want to do before.  On top of that, there’s no forcing it because their brain naturally motivates them to do it by producing a motivator drug: dopamine.  Their brain has been reprogrammed to think necessary goal = produce dopamine.

Aren’t drugs great?

Try it out and let me know how it works.  If you have trouble, find a guide who can help you use your imagination to trick your brain into using dopamine to achieve your dreams.  Give it a shot.  It can’t hurt and it just might work.

What I Do

Have you ever told a friend or family member about something you wanted to achieve?  How did it go?  Did they give you encouragement or advice?  I hope they didn't say: “That’s impossible!  You can’t do that.”

Whether they are supportive or discouraging, others often share advice.  Sometimes it’s useful and sometimes it isn’t; but in the end, whether we listen to it or not is up to us.  This is the way most of us work to improve our lives: gather information, evaluate effectiveness and implement the best plan. 

The problem is that it doesn't usually go so smoothly.

Let’s say you decide to lose weight and read an article where an expert tells you to give up your morning donut and vanilla latte.  Sounds reasonable, right?  There are lots of calories in that combo and taking that off your plate will really help.  The problem is that you LOVE your vanilla latte and donut.  It makes your mornings bearable.

Do you think you are going to follow this expert’s advice?  My guess is that most of us would valiantly try only to abandon it as soon as we had “bad” morning and “needed” our treat again.  I know I would.

This is also the way most therapists, coaches and consultants work.  They use suggestions as a way to induce change.  It goes something like this: you have a goal and doing X, Y and Z will get you there.  They provide you with reasonable and rational suggestions to move you forward and it is your job to implement them. 

The problem is that very little of our decision-making is rational. Most of our decisions are irrational and subconscious.  You might be getting great suggestions, but most of them will be difficult to implement unless your irrational mind agrees.  Rationally, it’s a no-brainer that giving up so many calories will help you lose weight, but your irrational mind – which is like a child – doesn't care: it wants what it wants and it wants it now.  It takes a LOT of mental discipline to make the irrational mind do something it doesn’t want.

Think of it like an iceberg.  What is the best way to move one?  Considering that 90% of an iceberg is underwater, pushing the above-water part might get some movement, but mostly it will just rotate the iceberg around in the same spot.  Pushing the underwater part, however, moves the top as well.

We are like that iceberg.  Our rational mind is the small part above the water and the rest is our subconscious.  It’s easy to rationally decide something, but it takes a lot of work get anywhere with it.  Move your subconscious, however, and your conscious experience effortlessly goes with it.

This is where I do my work: on the level of the irrational, or subconscious mind.  To achieve their goals, I do my best not to tell clients what to do or how to do it.  Instead, I help them work with their subconscious mind to propel them in the direction they desire. 

Working with me, clients come up with their own ideas, perspectives and excitement of how and what to do to get where they want to go.  This really makes a difference because what they decide comes from that irrational mind and, like I said before, when the irrational mind wants something, it’s hard to stop. 

Would you be able to do that thing you’ve always dreamed about if it felt fun instead of scary?  How would your company function if your staff loved coming to work?  Could you lose weight if a salad sounded more satisfying than the vanilla latte and donut?  You can push to make these things happen, but it’s much easier if your subconscious helps.

This is what I do: I provide an experience that allows clients to coordinate their conscious and subconscious goals.  Whether it is losing weight, getting fit, finding that dream job or reorganizing a company; getting the subconscious mind on board makes it much easier to achieve your dreams.

So, how do I accomplish this?  What do I do to get the subconscious working with you?  Next time I will explain it using sumo, roller derby and curling.