Dopamine levels are not static, and shouldn’t be. We are all managers of our dopamine levels intrinsically, and most people are not completely satisfied with how they manage the fluctuation. How does the system actually work and how do we employ behaviors, tools and techniques to improve success in managing it?
Just listen to the podcast
You should stop reading this right now and go listen to the Huberman Lab podcast episode on leveraging dopamine. I hate being a fanboy. I’m emo like that. But I am a Huberman Lab fanboy, though he has earned my fandom with incredibly deep, well organized and articulated information on neuroscience and health. I’m going to pull out the main points here for anyone who doesn’t have a couple of hours to spare (and because telling the story helps it stick in my brain), but please listen to the real thing. You will be so glad that you did.
The dopamine wave
Motivation is created by the wave like peaks and valleys of dopamine fluctuation, primarily in the mesocortical pathway in the image above. I’ll go into the parts with names that are hard to remember at the end, but that’s primarily where the dopamine we’re talking about resides.
Stimulus: I see a commercial for McDonalds with Brian Cox’s voice making it sound legit. Damn, I want a burger. I can almost taste it. There’s a dopamine spike as I think about what it would be like to take a bite.
Motivation: After my spike subsides, I slip into a trough. I don’t have a burger. I start thinking about how to get one. McDonald’s is pretty far away, can I have it delivered? If the amount of effort to get one doesn’t seem worth the dopamine of the initial stimulus spike, I may do nothing. If it is worth it, smaller waves of dopamine will drive me to take the necessary actions. That’s motivation.
Reward: I eat the burger. Dopamine spike.
Trough: Another trough after a peak. The higher the peak, the lower the trough. If the dopamine spike from the Reward is not as high as the dopamine spike I got from the Stimulus when expecting the Reward, maybe I need to get another burger or just feel bummed. And voila, the seeds of addiction — really high spikes, really low troughs and each subsequent reward spike is lower than expected.
Not burying the lead: the trick to beating procrastination
The key is, it has to be worse than the state of low motivation that you’re in.
High spikes cause low lows. So what if you’re in a low and you want to get out? What if you’re not feeling motivated to do the thing you know you need to do (procrastination)? Leverage the inverse: push yourself even lower so you bounce back higher. Do something that you really don’t want to do, that seems hard, that seems uncomfortable. Could be as simple as really cold shower, a brief bout of exercise or telling your mate the truth about whether that outfit makes them look fat. What that activity should be is up to you and how you feel at the time. The key is, it has to be worse than the state of low motivation that you’re in. If you do something you don’t usually like, but it’s slightly better than the procrastination state, you’ll end up doing the opposite of what you’re going for. I tend to clean when I’m procrastinating. I don’t like cleaning, but it’s slightly better than either the thing I’m procrastinating from doing or the state of procrastination itself, so it actually makes the procrastination worse.
You could also just wait. Dopamine is cyclical and it will come back up on its own. That’s the other common approach: procrastinate until the anxiety you feel about a looming deadline becomes the thing that is worse than the state of procrastination itself. It works, and we’ll both probably do it again. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking for an alternative that I can have a little more control over.
Now that we’ve seen the trick. If that’s all you want, take off and find something that makes you miserable so you can be happy. You’re probably not motivated enough to retain and try it, so here’s more information to raise your dopamine. The peaks and troughs average out to a baseline level of dopamine. Like a bathtub, if you make big waves, some of the water is going to slosh out and you have less in the tub. Dopamine works the same way. High highs and low lows reduce the baseline level of dopamine. Some people have a genetically higher level of dopamine, so they seem like they’re always moving, conquering the world and such. Higher baseline, higher motivation. Some of us do not have a naturally high baseline and/or have not lived life in a way that maximizes the baseline we could have. Luckily, there are behaviors we can practice and tools we can use to change that.
I’ll cover the behaviors and tools (i.e. supplements) next. Behaviors are better than tools, but tools have their place.
Dopamine cycles every day. That’s why the first item on the list, quality sleep is important. Sleep replenishes dopamine. Not enough or poor sleep, not as much dopamine is replenished for the next day. A few days or a lifetime of that and you’re grumpy and unmotivated. But the point is, dopamine management behaviors should be done everyday.
Daily dopamine baseline replenishing behaviors
Plenty of quality sleep. The Huberman Lab podcast has tons of information on this. Go listen.
Non-sleep deep rest (NSDR). An example of this would be yoga nidra. I can’t tell you how to do this, but I can tell you I’m going to find out and try it. Mindful, focused meditation does not count. It’s good for many things, but not dopamine replacement.
Nutrition. The amino acid L-tyrosine is used to produce dopamine, so eat foods that contain it. Simple. Parmesan cheese of all things, has a lot. Cheese, meat, fish, seeds, nuts…basically things with protein. You can also take it as a supplement, included lower down on the list, but taking too much can get you into the spike/trough issues we discussed above.
Sunlight. Specifically morning sunlight, which has a quality that excites certain neurons in your eyes and causes all sorts of great things like adjusting circadian rhythms to happen in addition to dopamine production.
Exercise. If you scroll back up to the picture above, there’s a pathway right next to the mesocortical pathway called nigrostriatal pathway. This one also uses dopamine, and is heavily involved in physical movement. There is no wall between the two, so some of the dopamine created for exercise is going to be available for motivation as well.
That list looks pretty much just like the list for improving every aspect of health anywhere, on any blog post. For one, that means you should actually follow it. But also, here are some more specific behaviors:
Cold water exposure. Cold shower, cold plunge, cold pool, ice bath, however you can get it, exposure to cold water up to the neck. This increases dopamine for up to 5 hours (no quick spike here) as well as epinephrine and norepinephrine (adrenaline). 37–55 degrees fahrenheit for 30–60 seconds early enough in the day to take advantage of the 5 hour increase is perfect.
Tyrosine supplements. 250mg-1.5g early in the day. More is not better here. It’s about finding the most effective level for you, but that’s a safe range. If you take too much it’s probably just going to get broken down, but seems like it also could cause some spike problems. I’m not a doctor. Definitely do your own research and maybe read the seminal research paper. If you want to know how to get it, you can visit this reputable, non-affiliate link.
Medications often used for ADHD. Boosting dopamine is also a part of treating ADHD, so Ritalin, Adderall, Modafinil and Armodafinil all increase dopamine. Personally, these scare me, so I’m trying everything I can to manage dopamine naturally.
Mecuna prurians/Parkinson’s treatments. Mecuna prurians. Try that 5 times fast. Parkinson’s is also a dopamine deficiency disease and mecuna prurians comes from a bean (which you can learn more about here) that is used to develop Parkinson’s treatments which you can learn more about here. It is intended for people with really low dopamine, so is not recommended for use if you don’t have Parkinson’s because it may cause some pretty big spikes.
A final story to drive it home
There were a series of experiments at Stanford with children and motivation. One interesting one was observing what children do in their free time, in other words, what they are intrinsically motivated to do. In the study, they took children who frequently chose to draw in their spare time, and gave them praise and rewards for their drawing. Drawing was something they would have done anyway, but the kids loved the rewards and enjoyed drawing even more. That is, until the rewards stopped. Then the kids who would have done it anyway, stopped drawing. They weren’t interested. Their intrinsically healthy dopamine cycle was thrown off by pushing the dopamine peaks too high with rewards that could not be replicated with drawing alone. They essentially learned that it wasn’t worth the effort. Thankfully, their desire to draw did come back after some time recalibrating.
This is not really about addiction, but there were some fascinating numbers shared in the podcast. Addictive spikes are characterized by the intensity of the spike, but also the speed of the spike. There is relatively very little time between the end of the motivation — taking the substance — and the massive dopamine spike. The instant gratification speed at which it works reinforces the learning. If I do this, I feel good, fast. I have very little difficulty connecting the action to the result because there isn’t a gap of time that I have to cognitively connect with the outcome. In the next section we’ll see that my nucleus accumbens doesn’t have to work too hard to find a correlation.
- Nicotine causes a spike that is a 150% increase over baseline dopamine.
- Cocaine causes a 1000% spike.
- Methamphetamine causes a 10,000% spike. You can see why these drugs can slosh a lot of dopamine out of the bathtub and leave people severely hampered in daily life.
The Nucleus Accumbens: the only neuroscience-y part of this post
All the way back up in the top diagram, there’s a line pointing to the area where the blue mesocortical pathway crosses over into the wrinkly part of the brain that we call the cortex (the pre-frontal cortex to be specific). This line is labeled the nucleus accumbens. Turns out this is a very, very important part of your anatomy in motivation and addiction. The NA has two parts:
- The shell: this called the coincidence detector. It detects if some stimulus coincides with some result. It is connected to the hippocampus and amygdala, so is in constant communication regarding our memories, what we’ve learned and how we feel about it.
- The core: this is highly connected to the motor cortex. This is what helps us go do things necessary to get the thing we want.
The NA is about halfway on the mesocortical pathway between the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) where stimuli arise from the midbrain and spinal cord, and the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) where our executive function decides we should do and what we should refrain from doing.
There’s another Huberman Lab episode about compulsive eating and obsessive compulsive behaviors with Dr. Casey Halpern that goes much deeper into the role of the Nucleus Accumbens in behaviors patterns that are really hard to break.
I don’t know if you learned anything reading this, but I certainly did writing it, which, tbh is really why I did it. I usually listen to the Huberman Lab on daily walks, but I’ve started sitting down and taking notes while I listen. It takes more out of my day because I’m not just listening while doing something, but I get a lot more out of it. And now, when I paraphrase it here, it really sticks.
That’s it, hopefully the science part wasn’t too painful, and you’re curious enough to learn more.
I think it’s important to note that when looking at the motivational circuit of Stimulus > Motivation > Reward > Trough, we humans are complex and many of our desires are complex patterns of these circuits. Let’s look at a more abstract example.
Stimulus: I listen to a podcast with Sam Harris, neuroscientist/philosopher, about mindful meditation. He talks of a more scientific approach to mindful meditation that goes beyond focusing on the breath, but is based on more scientific mechanisms behind the usual, spiritual/mystical eastern teachings. I want that. I am excited by what I’m learning about neuroscienctific mechanisms and that we as a species are piercing the veil of mysticism a bit to begin to understand the inner workings of it. My dopamine spikes.
Motivation: I download his app. I begin following his meditations. I begin branching out listening to people who appear in content on his app. This is a long process, full of many smaller dopamine spikes and troughs. Each with its own expectant stimulus, motivational trough, reward and post-reward trough. In fact, I may be able to break these into smaller and smaller component cycles.
Reward: Upon feeling some instance of anxiety, at just the moment when it could spiral, I look at the anxiety for what it is — an impulse — and I look at my interpretation — a thought — and I let it dissolve, just like that. I realize the payoff of the practice in everyday life, and I get a dopamine spike.
Trough: Was my spike enough to balance the initial stimulus? I don’t know. It’s been quite some time since I first heard Sam Harris speak, and the process has been complex with the many small motivational ebbs and flows of dopamine. Opposite of addiction, the long gap between the initial stimulus and the reward serves to reinforce my behavior more cognitively and less reflexively because I have to think about the reward and give effort to remember the stimulus. The release, the relief, is enough to continue to pursue. Is this really the trough after the reward or just another ebb and flow of a larger motivation? Both, I’m sure.
This scenario is more subtle than a craving for a hamburger, and the craving for a hamburger is part of larger motivational complex as well that may include seeing a picture of myself at my heaviest and getting excited at the prospect of losing weight. In the interest of accuracy and honesty about the circumstantial difficulty of managing dopamine and motivation, it’s important to acknowledge the complexity. The internet carries promises of quick fixes, and I’d like to be clear that nothing in this post is a quick fix. This is just information about tools that you can incorporate with the backing of scientific study, but they still need to be applied, daily over the course of a lifetime.