You’ve heard plenty about dopamine. Or maybe you’ve just heard a few things a lot—like “dopamine hits”, and how slot machines and social media are both expertly designed to manipulate the stuff. You may have also heard dopamine described as a molecule of pleasure. But that phrasing is not quite so accurate. Dopamine is better described as a molecule of motivation and desire. I’m not referring to sexy-time (exclusively) here. Rather, dopamine tends to make us want stuff. And then want it again.
About a dog
Once upon a time, my wife and I had a dog; a beautiful 50% beagle, 50% bulldog, 100% asshole named Walter. Once, during a Saturday morning walk, Walter discovered a pizza slice tossed behind a bush. He was sniffing around, perhaps expecting normal bush stuff when—POW!—surprise pizza! Milliseconds prior, Walter was cruising around with his standard baseline dopamine levels. Let’s call them a 4/10. His expectations for that bush were low—maybe a 5/10. What he got instead was 800/10. Some Friday-night drunk’s discarded dinner was now his breakfast. And the heavens did open up and the doggie angels did sing. This difference between expectation and reality is called a reward-prediction error.
In that moment, a constellation of dopamine release sites fired in concert—creating new and powerful crosstalk between different, previously unrelated thoughts, memories, and emotions. It was like a pitch-black room filled with treasure and then illuminated by a flash of lightning. Walter was expecting a little and he got a lot. That reward-prediction error caused immediate-term pleasure to surge. Suddenly, the pizza, the scent, the location, and movements formed strong, new connections. Do you think he ever once failed to check that bush on later walks?
This little story illustrates the power of dopamine in habit creation. As BJ Fogg says, “Emotions create habits. Not repetition.” In this case, one rep was all it took.
A certain level of contrast was required. I.e. if Walter’s dopamine levels had already been sky-high. So, it’s not about just about dopamine per se. It’s about the speed and volume of its release. When the jump from baseline is fast and dramatic, things get rapidly wired in. To have gotten the same intensity of experience from Walter a second time, we would have needed a slice of pizza 35 ft. long, weighing approximately 600 lbs.
This contrast effect is important to understand. It’s why the first hilarious cat meme you saw today might have caused a big reaction but a follow-up image of equal quality may not have felt like much. And that’s where desire comes into play. At this point you might be saying, “Hang on, is dopamine a pleasure molecule or not?” Now that we’re up to speed on the contrast effect, we can answer that. The pleasure comes from that initial exposure. But the stakes go up from there because… Well, that’s the heart of motivation. The old stuff won’t work anymore. Just like developing tolerance for a drug. Well, exactly like developing tolerance for a drug. We chase that high.
We also seek to amplify the effects of dopamine through synergistic compounds like caffeine. Coffee only creates a modest increase in dopamine. But it does increase the number of dopamine receptors, netting us more zing per gallon… more locks for dopamine-shaped keys. Even so, there are limits. Once all of your receptors are filled, more isn’t the answer.
Everything you ever wanted to know about desire but were afraid to ask
In Buddhism, the teaching is that desire creates suffering. From a dopaminergic standpoint, we’re talking about a pleasure hangover. Since we can’t just stay on that treadmill forever, we eventually have to come back down to baseline. This is your refractory period. And it is unenjoyable. Have you ever had buyer’s remorse? That’s the drop in dopamine levels connected to questions like, “Will this expensive blender truly solve all of my dinner dilemmas?” But we need that comedown so that we can feel pleasure again. The alternative is worse.
Addiction is defined as causing dysfunction in your life. But from a neurochemical perspective, it’s where we no longer chase the high for pleasure but instead because it alleviates the pain of comedown. And that’s why dopamine’s pleasure-creating effects offer—at best—diminishing returns.
One of the most fascinating things about dopamine is how it shifts from experience to anticipation. Multiple primate studies have shown that dopamine is initially released when a surprise reward is discovered. But once the subjects learn how to consistently create that reward—e.g. by opening a box to get a food pellet—dopamine release begins earlier. Over time, dopamine release starts at the mere sight of the prompt. No reward required. And if the treat doesn’t come? Another type of reward-prediction error. But the kind that makes us cranky.
I have been thinking of anticipatory dopamine release as semi-structural. For the right stuff, structural changes are wonderful. Positive change to the body—and brain—is faster and more automatic. Like how strength training begins as coordination and other upgrades to your wetware (e.g. early changes through things like myelination of neurons for faster signal conduction). But repeat these actions consistently and they’ll make their way into hardware upgrades like muscle tissue and joint position. The structural stuff is harder to build but harder to lose; it’s more idiot-proof.
Semi-structural is kind of in-between. That anticipatory firing might just be a way to process faster. The downside is that we get pissy when we predict incorrectly. The upside, as discussed, can be glorious.
3 practical tips for managing your own dopamine
#1 Keep it too small to fail
Have you ever been filled with hope and optimism about a new self-improvement regimen? That’s dopamine again—filling us with desire. I actually suspect that we overdo things in the planning stage because the potential for dramatic change just feels so freaking good. That would also account for the sudden and dramatic hangover we experience when falling off the rails. But I do not recommend.
My advice is to choose 1-3 small actions. Things so easy that you can always succeed. Design them with enough frequency to build your skills and enough consistency to become semi-structural. The same thing in the same way. Every time. Micro-dose your dopamine.
#2 Embrace the mini-suck
When you have micro-victories, the comedown isn’t so harsh. So, embrace those moments of mild boredom or frustration with gratitude. That’s just you returning to baseline so that you can enjoy the more subtle spikes again. Those tiny valleys are worth celebrating. They’re part of the circle of life (of pleasure and habit).
#3 Focus on the first thing
Dopamine stacking is another way to chase the dragon. So, instead of piling one dopamine-inducing activity onto the other, like checking your phone while watching TV while eating delicious baked goods… Maybe just do one thing at a time.