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.

Dopamine: Friend or Foe? – Part 1

Are you a drug addict?  I’m not just talking about the illegal or illicit kinds but also drugs like tobacco, sugar, alcohol and prescription painkillers?  Do you like how they make you feel?  Our society frowns on drug use – especially the illegal kind – so we don't like to admit to being addicted to drugs – even the legal ones.

That said, I have bad news for you: even if you really don't enjoy drugs – legal or not – you are a serious drug addict.  I would even argue that every human (and lots of animals too) is a drug addict.  In fact, we are so addicted to one drug in particular that we would rather have it than eat.  That drug is, interestingly, one we create ourselves.  It’s a drug called dopamine.

Dopamine is a chemical the brain releases when we gain information or do something that promotes our growth, survival and reproduction.  When it is released, we get excited or euphoric.  It's the feeling we get when we win a game, make a successful investment, find something new and interesting, get a great deal at a store, eat chocolate cake, drink alcohol, experience sex or fall in love.  It’s one of the best feelings we can have and nearly everything we do is so that we can experience that feeling.  It is so powerful that rats will starve if given the choice between taking straight dopamine and eating food.

This is what I mean when I say that we are drug addicts. 

And, just like addicts, we are slaves to dopamine because our desire for the feeling it gives dictates nearly everything we do and resisting that urge is incredibly difficult.  What do you reach for first when you are sad: chocolate cake or salad?  How often have you chosen the wrong mate just because of how you “feel” about him or her?  Have you ever made a bad investment because it sounded “incredible” – only to find that it really was too good to be true?  Ever yell at your staff or partner rather than try to understand them?  Of course these may not be true for you but you can see where I’m going with this: we make decisions based on how we feel rather than how it will serve us in the long run.  One big reason we make these decisions is because of the dopamine rush we get out of them.  

This is why most people would rather eat “bad” food over “healthy,” watch action flicks over documentaries, elect candidates that get them excited instead of those who have sound policies, command employees over leading them, and risk everything on questionable investments over making a reasonable financial plan that will grow money slowly over time.  The reason we make these choices is because we enjoy the dopamine rush we get from them.  

So, now that I have shown that you are drug addict, let me assure you that you can use this knowledge to make dopamine work for you instead of the other way around.  First, remember that you love dopamine and that you make decisions to get that dopamine hit.  Admit that you are addicted to this drug and relax – everyone else is, too.

With this in mind, you can make more beneficial life choices.  You can choose life options that you are relatively sure will give you both the dopamine and improve your life.  For example: have you ever chosen an unenjoyable job because it paid well?  I know I have.  Even though I had a better income, I hated getting up in the mornings and didn't do my best.  I had to drag myself to work every day and either quit unhappy or messed up enough to get fired.  If I, like so many, had “stuck it out” at those jobs, I’m sure I would be miserable now. 

I had made a bad life choice based on the money and not on the enjoyment I would have gotten from the work I did.  In other words, I had chosen a job that didn't give me experiences that caused my brain to produce dopamine.  I wasn't getting my fix at work and my results showed this lack.

That’s why, when faced with choosing between a job that gives you a high salary but isn’t so interesting, and one that will be enjoyable but may not be so lucrative take the enjoyable one because you will get more dopamine working there.  Doing an enjoyable job makes you feel good, will cause you to jump out of bed in the mornings, improve your performance, and might get you promoted faster – thereby getting a higher salary.  All the while, your brain will reward you with dopamine because you are doing something exciting.

Sounds pretty good, right?

So, remember that you love dopamine and, like an addict, you sometimes make bad decisions based on getting that good feeling.  Remember also, though, that you can use this addiction to your advantage by choosing things that you know will make you feel good and will also be beneficial to your life.

Next time I will explain how you can make dopamine your servant to achieve your dreams and have fun in the process.