Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Our brains are truly magnificent organs. They contain all kinds of amazing chemicals which are moved and transported along vast neurological highways. To this end we are both master and slave to these processes and it can effect our well-being, performance and health.
Dopamine and Motivation
In this article I am going to focus a little bit on the neurochemical named Dopamine. Dopamine deserves a capital D for the profound role it plays in motivation, drive and regular functioning. To make a long story short, dopamine helps us seek out, enjoy and explore new ways to experience pleasure. To get nerdy for short time there is something in our brain called the VTA or Ventral Tegmental Area. It sends axons out to the Nucleus Accumbens thus forming the Mesolimbic reward pathway. There is also a break in the reward pathway, the neocortex which controls how much and how often dopamine is released (note this for later). Without the break, we would be a purely pleasure seeking animal. Motivation is really about balancing pain and pleasure. When we experience things we like, we get dopamine release at the nucleus accumbens. When we are normal it fires 3-4 times per second. If we get excited in an anticipatory way, it increases the firing to 30-40 times and increases our desire to move towards whatever we are craving. Dopamine is responsible for wanting and desire. It is mostly released in anticipation and craving for something.
Dopamine Pathways and Goals
When we indulge in food, events etc. the dopamine release is increased by 50%. Sex increases dopamine release by 100% above baseline. Nicotine releases a 150% above baseline. Cocaine and amphetamine increase it 1000%. Just thinking about food, sex, etc. release's MORE dopamine than actually experiencing the event or substance. This, then motivates our behavior towards certain things. In our age of hyper complexity, social media, phones and constant distractions it is easy to get a lot of 'small' rewards very quickly. Likes on a picture, matches on Tinder, etc. These consistent rewards wreak havoc on our dopaminergic system as every time we experience the pleasure of dopamine release there is a subsequent and greater experience of pain, which then motivates us to further indulge in this activity. If we are utilizing all of our dopamine circuitry for trivial things, than our motivation or drive for accomplishing more meaningful things will be significantly diminished. Why bother doing something important if you can just beat a level in a game? The are objectively different but neurobiologically the same. So, what can we do to make sure we are utilizing these internal mechanisms and pathways to our advantage? Using our cognition or the 'neocortex' of our brain mentioned earlier allows us to put a break on consistent pleasure seeking behavior. With that said, making time to celebrate mostly meaningful things is a great start. If you are distracted often, pleasure seeking, looking for quick rewards your are not equipping your neurological highway to seek out things that would give a similar response but also some tangible, objective results. Luckily the dopamine response in our brain can be influenced by our subjective, cognitive processing. As an example, we can always use a Growth Mindset to anchor ourselves in work or projects. Facing challenges with an optimistic attitude and curious state of mind opens the opportunity to celebrate challenges and difficulty so when we experience these in our work and in the pursuit of goals (inevitably) we can embrace it, enjoy it and thus release some dopamine which will motivate us for more!
Celebrate the Quick Wins
Celebrate getting up on time in the morning. Celebrate completing tasks on time. Celebrate the beginning of new projects. Interestingly, the number one contributor to the release of dopamine is novelty. So, exploring new ways of doing old things can also increase your motivation to do those things more often. As an example, if you have been getting bored of a specific process of your work, change the process. For the real clever ones amongst you, you may clue in to the fact that earlier it was mentioned that the release of dopamine has an opposite, painful effect which further drives us towards an experience which releases more dopamine to alleviate any negative feelings. This, of course may put us into a perpetual spiral of goal seeking and we may become workaholics to the detriment of other aspects of our life and health. I will discuss this in another article about work-life balance.
Use Dopamine to Your Advantage
The Intermittent Reinforcement Schedule is the occasional and random distribution of rewards into the brain. It is highly addictive and utilized in slot machines at casinos. It is the most powerful form of dopamine reward schedule to keep us going. One of the things we can do to continue on a productive path and still enjoy dopamine release along the path is occasionally remove the rewards along the way, and make it 'intermittent'. We want to avoid the ‘crash' after a huge dopamine release which can put us into a sedentary and satiated state of mind. Do you ever finish a big project or goal and then rest for days on end? Maybe after your final exams are done you need two weeks off? The key here to continue progress as we are staircasing towards our goal, is to not celebrate all your wins. Big increases in dopamine lead to big crashes. Blunt the rewards to keep our dopamine systems in check. This ensures we stay on the path and continue the pursuit. So, as an example we can ask ourselves questions after we achieve or complete important milestones. Questions around future improvements, how to refine the process etc. We can change our perspective to see and experience the event as just a slightly above average accomplishment, with much more to go. this doesn't mean beat yourself up, it just means don't celebrate too much. Big increases in dopamine release should be used sparingly only to reflect big accomplishments that can serve as an example to reach even further accomplishments.