I recently listened to a very insightful podcast by Andrew Huberman on the topic of dopamine, how it works and actionable steps that can be taken to leverage dopamine to reach maximum focus, motivation and overall life satisfaction. While listening to it, I also made sure to jot down points that I felt were important, so that I could refer back to them at any point and really let this valuable information sink in. Below, you will find the same notes for your own understanding and reference. Use it wisely :)
Two main modes of communication between neurons with dopamine (or 2 ways that dopamine is released in the body): one is more local release, one with volumetric release.
If you were to take a drug that increases dopamine levels, you would be increasing both the local release and volumetric release. This relates to the baseline of dopamine and the big peak above baseline. This is important to note because many drugs that increase dopamine levels will actually make it harder to sustain dopamine levels for a longer period of time and to achieve those peaks that most of us are craving when we are in pursuit of something. Why? Because if you get both volumetric and local release, it means that the difference between the baseline and peak gets smaller. And how satisfying/exciting/pleasureful an experience becomes doesn't just depend on the height of the peak but it depends on the height relative to the baseline.
There's a better way to optimise the peak to base (which we'll get to in a bit).What about the duration of action of dopamine?
Neurons communicate by 2 modes (mainly):
Fast electrical synapses (ionotropic conduction): one neuron activates another neuron and little holes open up in the neuron and ions rush in (sodium is the main ion by which one neuron influences the electrical activity of another neuron, because sodium ions contain a charge). This is really fast.
Dopamine doesn't communicate that way, dopamine is slower, it works through something called g-protein coupled receptors. What happens is: dopamine is released in these little vesicles, get released out into the synapse. Some of that dopamine will bind to the postsynaptic neuron and then it sets off a cascade– one thing getting handed off to the next and to the next (like a bucket brigade). They are slow, but can also have multiple cascades of effects (they can change what a cell becomes, how well/poorly that cell will respond to that signal in the future.) This aspect of dopamine transmission is important. Also dopamine, does not work on its own.
Dopamine is the universal currency in all mammals, but especially humans, for moving us towards goals. How much dopamine is in our system at any given time compared to:
dictates our so-called quality of life and our desire to pursue things. It's the currency that determines the way you track pleasure, success, or whether or not you’re doing poorly.
Important: Your experience of life is dependent on how much dopamine you have RELATIVE to your recent experience(s). This is something that's not accounted for in the simple language of ‘dopamine hits’. A common simplistic way we like to think about dopamine is you eat a piece of chocolate–dopamine hit. The problem with thinking about it in this simple way is that it is an inaccurate way to look at it.
When you repeatedly engage in something that you enjoy, your threshold for enjoyment goes up. If you understand this process, you’ll be in a great position to take advantage of dopamine enhancing tools and also be able to modulate your own dopamine release for optimal motivation and drive.
dopaminergic neurons health is important for:
Dopamine is perhaps one of the most powerful molecules we have inside of us and we have to be careful how we leverage it. Even subtle fluctuations in dopamine really shape our perception of life, what we are capable of and how we feel.
So let's find tools to leverage dopamine to keep the baseline in a healthy appropriate place and still be able to access those peaks in dopamine because that's what makes life enjoyable and worth living.
All of us have diff levels of baseline dopamine. Dopamine does not act alone. It has close cousins and friends like:
Epinephrine (adrenaline) - we can't do anything without some level of this. Its release tends to wake up various aspects of our body's physiology and gives us a readiness. It's more about energy. Alone, it can be fear, paralysis(mental) or trauma. Dopamine colors epinephrine to modify person's subjective experience to make it more pleasurable.
Let's recall that we all have a baseline level of dopamine and that this has to do with genetics, your previous recent experience, and previous remembrance of experiences in the past.
When you ingest certain things to do things, dopamine level rises transiently. It will rise either more or less and it will be either brief or long term.
Synapses: little spaces between neurons. Neurons communicate with one another by making each other more or less electrically active.
Our species has a primary interest– to make more of itself. This isnt just about sex and reproduction, its about foraging for resources (food, water, salt, shelter, social connection). Dopamine is the universal currency of foraging and seeking. Seeking things that will provide sustenance and pleasure in the short term and will extend the species in the long term. Once we understand that dopamine is a driver for us to seek things, it makes perfect sense as to why it would have a baseline level, peaks and the two would be related in a direct way.Example:
Lets say you’re you're alive 10,000 years ago. You woke up, looked around and you notice that you had minimal water/food left, you have a child/partner, you realize you need things. You need to be able to generate energy to seek those things. Chances are there were danger in seeking those things (Sabertooth tigers and other dangers like a cut to the skin that could lead to infection, storms, cold climate, leaving your loved ones behind). So you go out and forage (hunt, gathering). The going out and foraging process was driven by dopamine. Dopamine drives you to go out and look for things. Lets say you find berries, or hunt an animal. You are going to experience a dopamine release (you found a reward) and then the dopamine needs to return to some lower level because otherwise you would never forage for more. IMPORTANT: it doesn't go back down to what it was before. It goes back down to a level lower than it was before. This is counter intuitive. When you finish a marathon, you cross the finish line and you feel great and you think you'll feel this accomplishment for a year. But actually, it goes down below the initial baseline level. Eventually it'll ratchet back up.2 things to note:
Fast from things for 30 days at least.
Example: social-media dopamine fast.
The first 14 days are the most difficult (generally) when it comes to these fasts.
So go cold-turkey or limit interaction with the activity or substance.
Then the dopamine system can replenish itself.
The real key lies in intermittent release of dopamine. The key is to not expect or chase high levels of dopamine release every time we engage in these activities.Dopamine reward prediction error - when we expect something to happen and it doesn't
Intermittent reward schedules- intermittent schedule by which dopamine sometimes arrives, sometimes a little bit, sometimes alot, sometimes a medium amount. This intermittent reinforcement schedule is actually the best schedule to export to other activities. How? Well firstly, if you're engaged in activities (school, sports, relationships, etc) where you experience a win, you should be very careful about allowing a huge peak in dopamine (unless you're willing to experience the crash that follows and waiting a period of time to allow it to come back up)
Ex: you could do this by supposing: you kinda only enjoy exercising, but then in order to enhance the experience you layer on other things such as taking pre-workout, playing your favourite music tracks, going at a particular time etc. But then there's a version of this where you don't do the extra stuff and just do the exercise.
So if you want to maintain motivation for school, relationships, exercise or pursuits of any duration for a long period of time, the key is to make sure that the peak in dopamine (if it's very high) doesn't occur too often and if something does occur very often that you vary how much dopamine that you experience, with each engagement in that activity. You can't schedule it, it has to be random! For activities you'd like to continue, start paying attention to the amount of dopamine you achieve with those and start modulating them at random.
There are a lot of different ways to do this. Its up to you how you do it.
Maybe flip a coin.
Dopamine can be used to understand why digital technology can potentially lead to disruptions or lowering in baseline levels of dopamine.Example: Using phone at the gym maybe?
All this is misinterpreted as ‘people can't be alone now’. But whats actually happening is, we achieved the great dopamine increase that comes with this incredible thing which most of us personally enjoy. But then what happens is, it doesn't have that same fulfilling aspect to it, and it tends to move the excitement of the very activities that we are engaged in. So, this is hard, but try removing multiple sources of dopamine release from activities that you want to continue to enjoy or enjoy more.
For this very same reason, take caution of using stimulants when doing things like studying, exercising, if you want to continue doing that activity. However, you can continue with caffeine, which can be helpful for the reason listed earlier.
Big no no’s: energy drinks, pre-workout drinks, drugs taken repeatedly overtime will reduce the overall satisfaction of the activity that you get while under the influence of these substances.
Intermittent spiking of dopamine is the way to go, not continuous/chronic spiking (this would undermine your motivation and drive).
Source of caffeine matters: coffee, tea are good. Yerba Mate contains caffeine, high in antioxidants, also contains GLP-1 (favourable for management of blood-sugar levels). Also shown to be neuro-protective specifically for dopaminergic neurons.
MDMA - is it neuro-toxic? Controversial. Caffeine has been shown to increase the toxicity of MDMA receptors. So it is bad (even dangerous) in this case.
Meth Amphetamine is neuro toxic.
Amphetamine and cocaine can cause long term problems with the dopaminergic pathways (largely based on a paper published in 2003 but still holds a lot of merit. Author: Kolb Title of journal: Amphetamine or cocaine limits the ability of later experienced or promote plasticity in the neuro cortex and the nucleocompbance)
(both the peaks-when they happen- and to maintain or increase the baseline levels of dop)
Hard work is hard. Most people don’t like this and only do it to achieve the end goal. Working hard for the sake of the reward can make the hard work more challenging and make us much less likely to lean into hard work in the future.Example:
Experiment done at Stanford many years ago: Children in nursery and KG drew pictures because they liked to draw. The researchers took these kids and gave them a reward for drawing. The reward was generally a gold star.
Then they stopped giving the gold star. They found that the children had much lower dependency to draw on their own, no reward. Prior to receiving the reward the children intrinsically enjoyed and selected to do.
No one was telling them to draw. This is intrinsic vs. extrinsic reinforcement. When we receive rewards (even if we give ourselves rewards for something), we tend to associate less pleasure for the activity itself that evoked the reward.
The cognitive interpretation is that you didn't really do the activity for the enjoyment of the activity, but for the reward.
We are actually extending the time-frame by which we are perceiving that experience and because the reward comes at the end, we start to disassociate the neural circuits for dopamine and rewards that normally would have 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 the activity while were doing it. This is the antithesis of the growth mindset.
Growth mindset: Learning to access the rewards from effort/doing. This is difficult to do because you have to engage the pre-frontal component of the mesolimbic circuit. You have to tell yourself that the effort is great (this is hard). This evokes dopamine reward from friction.
You completely eliminate the ability to generate those circuits (of being able to reward friction while in effort) if you are focused only on the goal that comes in the end (because of the way dopamine marks time).
The beauty of this mesolimbic reward pathway is that it includes the fore-brain - so you can tell yourself that the effort part is the good part- “I know its painful, I know its hard, but I'm focused on this, I'm going access the reward inside of this effort itself”
This then starts becoming reflexive for all types of effort.
When you are in the moment of most intense friction, tell yourself: “This is very painful, and because it is painful, it WILL invoke an increase in dopamine release later (meaning it’ll increase my dopamine baseline)” BUT also tell yourself in that moment “ I am doing this by choice and I’m doing this because I love it”
Things that can interfere with getting dopamine release form effort itself: Don’t spike dopamine prior to or after engaging in effort. Learn to spike your dopamine from effort itself.